Okay, it’s official… the summer of 2012 is not what I thought it was going to be at all, and I’m enjoying the near complete sense of surprise, week after week, film after film. At the start of this week, I had three films scheduled, and the one I felt most excited about seeing, the one that seemed like the safest bet of the bunch was “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
Now, on the far side of the three of them, “Spider-Man” is the one that disappointed me, and both Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike” have proven to be far more interesting than they seemed in basic pitch form. There’s something wonderful about being kept off-balance in the middle of a season where each week brings something that seems almost pre-digested thanks to hype and expectation. Aside from knowing the general backstory that Channing Tatum used to work as a stripper and that’s where the material began, I knew next to nothing about “Magic Mike,” and so while I’m not sure how they’re selling the movie, they’ve got something really charming and smart here, and it deserves to be one of Soderbergh’s biggest hits in years.
One of the things that makes him such an interesting filmmaker, even when he isn’t completely on his game, is his willingness to try anything, work in any genre, tell any story. Our film industry puts people into very narrow boxes as soon as they can, and it can be impossible for people to work outside of that very narrow definition of their talents. Soderbergh seems like he’s managed to figure out how to do some of everything, keeping it exciting because we can’t possibly anticipate his next move if he can’t.
“Magic Mike,” written by Reid Carolin, tells the story of Mike (Channing Tatum), a simple guy with a simple dream. He wants to make custom furniture for people, and to that end, he hustles. He’s saving money. He’s planning for the future. And the main job he’s working to put that money away is stripping as part of an all-male revue that’s run by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). He also works construction, and one day, he ends up on a crew with Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a kid who threw away a football scholarship and who is now adrift. The film’s set in Tampa, and there’s a lazy sunny energy to it, a perfect sort of mood accompaniment to the story itself. I’m not sure how Soderbergh managed to nail Tampa, but take it from someone who lived there for many years… he’s got it right. I think the theater even got a little more humid as the movie played.
Of course, that might just have been the chemical reactions in the audience around me. Ladies, if you want a big giant shameless slice of beefcake served up in a better-than-it-should-be package, that’s “Magic Mike”. And while it’s nice to see some blatant eye-candy offered up to an under-served part of the audience, there’s so much more to the film. The film follows a fairly predictable arc as Mike reaches out to Adam, offering him a chance to work as a dancer and get his life on track. Adam’s sister, Brooke, is played by Cody Horn, and she’s suspicious of Mike and the world that exists on the fringes of the club. She thinks her brother is in danger of falling off the edge of things, and she wants him to get his life together. Horn was good in a small role in Rob Reiner’s “Flipped,” and she’s very good here as the face of normal that Mike finds himself draw to with a growing intensity. She represents everything he wants, a real life, a respectable mellow existence, and yet he’s still Magic Mike, he’s still that dancer and that personality, and he isn’t ready to give that up yet. What could easily be trite “falling in love” stuff is instead etched with specific, careful detail. It’s a well-observed film, a movie that feels authentic, and that’s what amazes me. As with the Tampa thing, Soderbergh isn’t a nude dancer, and I’m guessing it isn’t his normal social scene, but he captures it with a journalist’s eye. He likes the reality of this world, and even though most of the supporting players don’t have a ton of screen time, they make strong impressions because of the way Soderbergh punctuates his observations.
Matthew McConaughey does tremendous work here as the guy who owns the club, and he’s creepy at times, hilarious at times, sympathetic and likable at other times. It’s a pretty amazing range of things he plays, and he makes Dallas a hard guy to pin down. He’s playing a character 24 hours a day, always on, always selling something, always working the room. There are moments where he looks like a dead-eyed psycho, and moments where he looks like the big brother everyone hopes to have, and that subtle shift depending on the moment is what makes his Dallas so interesting onscreen. He’s the energy that everything else revolves around, and so all of the club scenes are played as these chaotic group things, everyone part of the overall noise, with Dallas right there in the eye of it.
There are places that the film goes that are very frank or even dark, but it’s not a “heavy” film overall. Mike’s life is sort of insane, and there’s a subplot involving the occasionally topless Olivia Munn that really underscores just how bad Mike is at the fundamentals of human relationships. He can sleep with anyone, but the more you get to know him, the more you realize how stunted he is in key ways. The film isn’t really about Adam, who everyone dubs “The Kid,” but is more about Mike’s attempts to grow and the things he has to realize about himself and his own shortcomings. It’s a brisk film, and even when it takes some rough turns, there’s always something charming and sincere about the movie. There is something to watching a great filmmaker working in peak form that transcends material. Soderbergh crushes it, and what’s really important here is that Channing Tatum is having the same kind of peak form moment, finally coming into his own as a performer. Soderbergh knows how to make Tatum comfortable and get something real and appealing out of him, and Tatum has gotten so comfortable over the course of his last handful of films that it’s hard to believe this is the same guy we were watching even three years ago. He plays this movie wide open, laying himself bare in the figurative sense as well as the literal, and the end result is a nice indication of what sort of work we can look forward to from Tatum in years to come.
If Steven Soderbergh retires, as he keeps threatening to do, we are genuinely poorer for it, and films like “Magic Mike” are the reason he’d be missed.
“Magic Mike” opens everywhere on Friday.