This is part two of my Best and Worst Movie of the Summer So Far feature, part one is here.
The common sentiment about Magic Mike seems to be that it’s a bit of a bait and switch, but it’s not often you’re baited (‘bated?) with fluff and presented with the profound, and who the hell complains about something being too good, anyway? I went in expecting Bring It On with thongs or Coyote Ugly-style, so-bad-it’s-good schlock, and judging by how hard my screening audience laughed at the Pitch Perfect trailer, I wasn’t alone. (Can you imagine being in a room full of people belly laughing at that? It’s like wandering into Klan rally). But what I went in expecting to enjoy sarcastically, I ended up loving genuinely. In a way, it’s a metaphor for Channing Tatum’s entire career. No one in the world has gone from awful actor to brilliant one this fast! No one!
If it was just a story about male stripping, it’d be good enough. Matthew McConaughey as the strip club owner, Dallas, absolutely crushes every scene he’s in, whether he’s wearing a do-rag and jazz shoes (!!!!) while he teaches Alex Pettyfer dance moves in front of the mirror (“You’re the boss, you’ve got the dick!”), or singing the ladies a song he wrote himself before whipping them into such a frenzy that they rip off his g-string (laaawbreakers, the lot of them). He deserves an Oscar nom and I’m not kidding – an actor’s persona and portrayal rarely harmonize so perfectly, maybe once in a decade, but you truly believe that Soderbergh could’ve followed around McConaughey with a videocamera and just spliced the footage into the movie without anyone noticing, alright alright alright.
Kevin Nash is almost as fun to watch as the aging stripper “Tarzan,” stumbling around barely remembering his dance moves when he’s actually sober enough to make it onstage. And the scene with the tip of Big Dick Richie’s (Joe Mangienello) penis framed blurrily in the foreground as he slowly vacuums it further into a penis pump (ffft… ffft… ffft…) as the action moves on around him is visual comedy of the highest order. A blurry dick vaccuum just out of frame, an enduring image for the ages.
“But it’s about more than just male stripping!” would make great jacket copy for a hard-bound volume of my memoirs, but it’s actually true here. Chuck Palahniuk used to say that all the best stories are about community, and likewise, the best movies afford you membership into some odd subculture (yes, I’m even thinking 8 Mile here). In Magic Mike, it’s a crew of hairless, lascivious dick-shakers, but resonates beyond that (not that it needs to). Mike (C-Tates), in addition to stripping, works construction, owns an auto-detailing business, and dreams of starting his own custom furniture business (he and Anton Yelchin’s character in Like Crazy should hook up – yay, furniture!). He meets Alex Pettyfer’s character on a job site, and through a series of extraordinary events (“hey, you in the audience, can you play the cello? I’m all out of options here!”), Pettyfer gets literally pushed onstage and introduced to the world of grabby women and easy singles.
For C-Tates’ character, stripping is something he does because it’s good money, not too hard, and preferable to most of his alternatives. But when he introduces similarly unexceptional handsome guy Pettyfer to the life, Pettyfer seems to think that the life is it, being a male stripper in Tampa the pinnacle of achievement. The dialog is a bit forced at times (“Hey Mike. Can we be best friends?”), but the experience familiar. I spent plenty of my own college years acting like a drunken meathead with other otherwise intelligent guys who would go on to become doctors and lawyers and enviromental engineers, not because we were drunken meatheads, but because acting like one seemed fun at the time. Some times a younger guy would join the fold and try to emulate us, but would miss the sense of detachment about it, and the guilt we felt at creating this monster would force us to deal with the all-important question: how much dumb sh*t can you do before you become, for all intents and purposes, a dumbsh*t? When Channing Tatum tries to win back his love interest, Pettyfer’s sister (Cody Horn, looking like a blonde Michelle Rodriguez with more acting skills), he tells her “I am not my lifestyle!” And the look on his face says he’s not sure if he believes it. (Yes, Channing Tatum managed to convey an emotion with just a facial expression. I was a shocked as anyone). The question of how long you can do something because it benefits you before it becomes you is a deep one (ask anyone with a sh*tty job), and Magic Mike doesn’t cheapen it by offering easy answers.
You’ll be disappointed if you expect big, Oliver Stone-ian plot developments like a showdown with drug dealers or characters getting maimed or killed. Likewise, there’s a scene with C-Tates applying for a business loan that borrows heavily from Boogie Nights (Buck’s Super Stereo World, anyone?), and I definitely didn’t need Pettyfer’s hokey backstory about being a jock who lost his scholarship because he punched out his coach (he’s was just too brash!). But the flaws were easily overlooked for the way it depicted male relationships that felt honest, which is so rarely achieved (Entourage tried for umpteen many seasons and never even came close). There’s also a heavy undercurrent of recession-era slice of life, where all the characters watch Mad Money and read Robert Kiyosaki, even as everything around them forecloses and the wave of rising prosperity crashes hard and rolls back. (Tampa isn’t just an honest setting – the real place where Channing Tatum actually stripped – but also a perfect one). You could say that it’s as much about the growing pains of capitalism as it is about the growing pains of the main characters, if you wanted to be a douche about it.