Forget those nauseating TV spots drenched in the sugary pop songs of Rihanna and Maroon 5, with images of shirtless men parading down the beach. If you come to “Magic Mike” expecting the senseless ladies’ night out the advertisements promise, you might be dissatisfied. Although stripping plays a key role, it is merely a jumping off point for a much darker, bleaker film.
“Magic Mike” is based off the film’s star Channing Tatum and his own experiences as a male stripper in Tampa, Fla., when he was 19-years-old. Tatum plays Magic Mike, a veteran stripper who takes in a struggling young man (Alex Pettyfer) and helps him become the club’s new stripping sensation, “The Kid.” Mike soon falls for his protégée’s sister (Cody Horn) and realizes he is growing tired of life at the club, which is run by a retired stripper named Dallas (Matthew McConaughey).
The story is essentially a fable about the rise to stardom: what is gained in the pursuit of success and what is lost in hindsight during the inevitable downfall. Drug addiction, financial woes and raunchy group sex provide the meat of the excitement in what is a refreshing film for Soderbergh. He does not glamorize the profession, but shows its everyday rituals to often-hilarious results: a shot of one guy sewing up his thong while smoking a cigarette, or another rubbing lotion on his legs because he complains of getting “ashy.”
It is nice to see Soderbergh take on a lighter subject (compared to his recent assassin and deadly virus flicks) while still creating art that is edgy, semi-intelligent and technically superb to look at. The entire film is shot in muted colors, with particular emphasis on soft blues, greens, pinks and yellows in most scenes. Instead of close-ups on every character, Soderbergh opts for many to have entire conversations from a far-off distance or off-screen, allowing the audience to focus on the dialogue itself and soak in the tacky, coastal landscape. He wisely uses wide angles and panning shots, letting the audience feel like a fly on the wall during the strip club and sex scenes.
Although the strip montages can get tiresome, Soderbergh does a terrific job at giving the audience a peek into what is a little-known world to many. Unlike female strippers who are frequently shown undressing against a pole, the male strippers in “Magic Mike” have highly choreographed and ever-changing performances. Construction worker, jungle man, and police officer routines, to name a few: They all feature flashy sets, skimpy costumes and loose storylines that give women a more fully realized fantasy. And while female strippers in films are typically portrayed as sleazy, low-class women with insecurity issues, the men of this film appear to be confident, alpha males who are, despite their flaws, perfectly content with their lives of “money, women and a good time.”
Tatum himself has had a successful year in Hollywood, starring in hits like “21 Jump Street” and “The Vow,” proving he is a bankable leading man. Although feeble in a few dramatic moments, he carries the film with ease and a laidback charm. Pettyfer does commendable work as "The Kid," who fittingly starts stripping to Madonna's "Like A Virgin" but later provides the story’s central drama as he falls too deep into the playboy lifestyle. The supporting cast of strippers have next-to-nothing to do, but are comically led by McConaughey.
“Magic Mike” could have been stronger overall had it gone deeper into the darker themes it merely touches upon. At the height of its dramatic tension, the film tends to cut away to other characters or throw in a strip montage so the movie does not become too heavy-handed for its audience. There is an obvious tension between Mike and Dallas—further exploring this relationship, the drug craze or the unfulfilled aspirations of the strippers could have also been intriguing.
The ending wraps up a little too sweetly, but still works because you know it is not a happy ending for everybody, but rather the beginning of a painful downfall we only wish we could see. This film could have been a completely different animal had it been a smaller indie project that was not trying to pull in a general audience—probably something more like Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” a few years back, which was a troubling examination of a career long past its prime.
What we have instead is the modern equivalent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights”—a dark, boisterous, but captivating time in the multiplex. “Magic Mike” has appeal that stretches far past the swooning hens still drunk off Tatum’s Nicholas Sparks’ persona. Thanks to Soderbergh, the film rises above the expectations of a romantic comedy cliché and ultimately delivers the goods.