No matter how hard you try to describe Magic Mike to someone in any way other than “that male stripper film”, you’ll always find yourself describing it as “that male stripper film”. Occasionally you’ll find yourself talking to someone a bit more knowledgeable and you’ll describe it as “that male stripper film directed by Steven Soderbergh” and those people will go “Steven Soderbergh? Really?” and those people won’t understand. Steven Soderbergh is still one of this generation’s most exciting film-makers, constantly threatening to retire with a turnover rate that puts Octomom to shame. So yes, this is a “male stripper film” but only as much as There Will Be Blood is an “oil film”.
Summer in Tampa and college burn-out Adam (Alex Pettyfer) meets Mike (Channing Tatum) working on a building site. Later that night while having dinner with his sister Brooke (Cody Horn), Adam again bumps into Mike and asks for help getting into a club. Mike is revealed to be a male stripper working alongside/under Dallas (Matthew McConaughy) and he quickly brings Adam (now The Kid) into the fold. Stripping is one of Mike’s many jobs, all of which he does to further his dreams of getting into the custom furniture business, while Adam sees stripping as the solution to all his problems. As the summer burns on, temperatures rise and opportunities present themselves and things take turns for better and for worse…
First off this is more Boogie Nights than Full Monty. Yes the stripping scenes are sometimes funny, but they’re incredibly professional and the film places emphasis on the physical stamina and skill needed to perform such routines to a high standard. Seriously, these guys can move. They’re an extension of the character’s psyches and often give valuable insight into the thoughts of these guys and any given time, especially McConaughey’s late-breaking number. But it’s as much about stripping as Boogie Nights is porn, but strangely with less cock. Soderbergh uses the profession as a backdrop to explore the attitudes and motivations of these three main men, and the impact it has on the people around them.
And it’s so much fun, easily Soderbergh’s most refreshing film since Ocean’s Twelve. There’s an easy going charm to proceedings, Reid Carolin’s script (loosely based on Tatum’s own experiences as a male stripper) finding the right balance between conversational and driven as Mike and The Kid inevitably tumble further down the rabbit hole. That part of the journey is nothing new, but what will keep you gripped is trying to see who’ll come out the other end.
It’s been hard being a Channing Tatum supporter since A Guide to Recognising Your Saints. Step Up didn’t help, but worse was Hollywood’s insistence on casting anyone with muscle as an action hero (see: Affleck, Ben) and not playing to their natural strengths. Tatum is a good actor and finally this year between The Vow, 21 Jump Street and this he’s having his coming out party. It’s a huge sigh of relief and he’s at his best here, the easy going charm outweighing the physical imposition lending a casual believability to his wooing of Horn’s Brooke. Speaking of which, while her casting practically screams nepotism (her dad is Hollywood mogul Alan Horn) there’s a natural charm to her delivery and stripped back appearance which presents an inspiringly strong female characterisation in a film which on the surface seems all about the men.
Speaking of men, Pettyfer finally delivers a performance of note, something keen observers would have imagined to be impossible while the rest of the men in the troupe are largely relegated to the background (weep Matt Bomer fans…). All of them except McConaughey who continues his journey on a year even better than Tatum’s. His Dallas is a lubed-up Mephistopheles, all wide-grins, oily charm and a menacing glint in his eye. While he may have given a larger performance as Killer Joe, this is in no way any less daring and when the awards rightly come his way it will be richly deserved. He grabs the movie’s big swinging dick and runs with it.
As conventionally unconventional as the best of Soderbergh’s work (once again there’s not a helicopter or over the shoulder shot in sight) and bleached with a sun kissed palate, it’s a unique film in the Summer Box Office landscape and deserves as big an audience as possible. This isn’t Sex and the City: Rock Out With Their Cocks Out. It’s a surprisingly accessible romantic comedy drama for grown ups and it’s a shame that it’s such a rare thing. Please go see it.