Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh)

Hey, you know why porn is so popular? Because it doesn’t spend an hour after the money shot lecturing you about what an immoral nogoodnik you are for enjoying it. (Not that a “money shot” or even a shot of an erect member is a thing we can have in a U.S. R-rated movie; what do you think we are, adults?) The dual goals of Magic Mike are evident respectively from its marketing campaign and its smug appropriation of Saul Bass’ 1970s Warners logo. There is the movie we hope we will see, a rare opportunity for the seldom-recognized or permitted Female Gaze in cinema — a boisterous night of male strippers dancing suggestively and looking hot, weaved into a story about a vet taking a wet-behind-the-ears Kid under his wing. Doesn’t hurt that the vet is eye candy like Channing Tatum, or that trashy-wiry Matthew McConaughey takes a supporting role (let’s briefly put aside that neither is much of an actor; that’s hardly unusual for sex symbols of any gender).

But then there is the “real” movie, the one Steven Soderbergh tricks you into seeing. That’s the concerted attempt at a grittily of-its-time Hollywood semi-art movie, as dreadful an idea as it sounds because this isn’t the ’70s and Soderbergh is not Sidney Lumet. These days he’s John Avildsen, at best. While this movie starts as an agreeably interesting from-the-outside-to-ground-zero look at a male strip club, it becomes dire after about half an hour — between its hardened, joyless date-movie nonsense (of course, the lady who pouts and purses her lips at everyone having a good time is “good” and “desirable” and the one who flirts openly, has adventurous sex and doesn’t want to listen to Channing Tatum’s endless bullshit is a “dishonest” “slut”) and its laughably self-serious subplots about botched drug deals and botched bank loans and botched moves to Miami, it’s typically stupid Hollywood moralizing, all dread and discomfort.

What this story of a stripper trying to make it in the post-recession New Economy — stunted by the lurid neon dread of his chosen side-career (he’s a roofer by day), bankers who want “credit checks,” and the fact that his new little bro with a hot sis gets mixed up in a coked-out subplot from a Joe Don Baker movie — really amounts to is a modern Hays Code exercise that wants it both ways. Magic Mike engages gleefully in the fun excess of a girls’ night out and even gets engagingly involved in the nuts and bolts of it, then punishes us for enjoying it. Because how dare we demean ourselves into thinking a sexy movie that doesn’t have some goddamn didactic ulterior motive is something that might be good for us, right?

The problem of wallowing in things and then wagging your finger at them isn’t limited to Soderbergh, though he does more than his share; see the earlier Traffic for a depressing racial-anxiety example that shares this film’s drug-related hysteria. It’s one of the most regrettable trends in the Serious films Hollywood brings us. If adults want to go see Requiem for a Dream or something and don’t feel like they’ve gone through a particularly sadistic 12-step program afterward, more power to them. But a handy microcosm for why some of us don’t enjoy being put through this sort of thing is the initially delightful scene in which Mike (Tatum), Adam “The Kid” (Alex Pettyfer) and some other guys are booked at a bachelorette party which they enter disguised as cops before going all-out on a wild binge of teasing and (consensual) manhandling. After a few minutes of this, of course it descends into boyfriend-jealousy chaos and the drug stuff comes back with a vengeance, so sorry, party’s over, plot time. Not that we’re against “plot,” but generally it works better if you write “characters” first, and if said plot has more dimension than the average dime novel. (Since this takes place in Florida and is about strippers, maybe they should’ve let Carl Hiaasen have a go.)

Some portions of the script were informed by Tatum’s own life; that doesn’t make his heavy-on-broness performance, all about plastic covering in the car and the suave overconfidence of a muscled Joe Average (you can almost smell the cologne every time he’s on camera), any more convincing. His reactions are stilted and overly practiced, and he easily upstages the sheer apathetic brattiness of Pettyfer, the schmoozing of McConaughey (as creepy and irksome as ever), and Cody Horn, whose bizarre casting as Adam’s sister is nearly fatal because she cannot get through a scene without, and I swear I’m not trying to be mean, the most unsightly slack-jawed expression in the annals of American cinema. Soderbergh apparently let her improvise, and this is an Efficient Craftsman who runs a tight ship! The sole remotely compelling turn anyone’s afforded here is Betsy Brandt’s very brief cameo as the banker who won’t let Mike get a loan and consequently is subject of a “topical” rant Tatum has no clue how to recite.

At least the film is aesthetically less ugly than a lot of its director’s filter-heavy work, leaning heavily on the natural beauty of its locations, but this is canceled out by the coldness of the club stage and the film’s resistance to its musical bouyancy, as though some dead weight just behind the lens is blocking us from any kind of legitimate escape. For this reason, while several of my friends told me the stripping scenes were the only good part of Magic Mike, I’m not sure even they work — maybe I’m not the best judge, but I feel like I know genuine eroticism when I see it whether it corresponds to my sexuality or not, and my instinct tells me that James Spader’s performance in sex, lies and videotape was sexier than the entirety of this movie, which is all so clinically and harshly shot. Soderbergh is so terrified of suggesting that some varieties of sex workers might not be miserable, empty people at their core that he somehow spins all this into something as mind-numbingly bleak as a Christopher Nolan movie. For fuck’s sake, guy, it’s a story of a stripper who wants to design furniture; let’s have some fun with this instead of just making another movie about some special snowflake who must Rise Above all this adversity around him.

Oh, and general note: our current crop of Hollywood directors is handling the modern Depression far less adroitly than did their ’30s counterparts. Channing Tatum handing a lady a huge wad of fives and twenties while trying to sweet-talk her and showing her an attractive binder all about his dream furniture biz is more Calvin & Hobbes punchline than Frank Borzage social comment. Let’s not forget that Soderbergh himself made one of the best films ever about the Great Depression, King of the Hill. It often seems as if we’re not even talking about the same guy anymore. So maybe Mike is a metaphor for Soderbergh himself, the determined and sensitive artist who got stuck in the gears of the Machine and the only way out was to churn out stuff like this until they let him get away. Really, Magic Mike is phenomenal by the standards of the modern studio picture — and since this is a film that ends with a conversation about what time a certain breakfast place opens and whether it’s feasible to just have sex until then, is that sad or what?

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