Film review: Magic Mike (15)
IN USING actors who fit their parts perfectly and recruiting a very reliable cinematographer, Steven Soderbergh has pulled it off again.
The marketing campaign for male stripper opus Magic Mike has done a pretty good job of disguising the type of movie it really is, with posters seemingly aimed at the same drunken hen party clientele for whom its abdominally perfect troupe of thong-thumping protagonists perform on a nightly basis.
Looking at these posters, one might be forgiven for thinking the film had nothing more to offer other than grinding crotch shots and assless chap slapping. Rest assured, it does have those things (and mighty amusing they are too), but there’s more than shaving rashes and herpes going on beneath the surface of this sometimes sweet, sometimes seedy Southern-set tale of vaulting ambition and preening narcissism.
For starters, there’s mercurial director Soderbergh, who transforms a not entirely promising premise into a slyly funny, slick and subversive backstage drama in which a star isn’t so much born as a monster is spawned. That monster isn’t the titular Mike (played here by Channing Tatum), but a 19-year-old college dropout called Adam (Alex Pettyfer). Sponging off his protective older sister Brooke (Cody Horn), he’s doing everything he can to avoid getting the type of job that might necessitate him actually pretending to respect his boss or – God forbid –wear a tie (or at least wear a tie with a shirt underneath).
When he meets Mike, however, his life quickly changes. Though Mike – who works multiple jobs in an effort get his custom furniture business off the ground – doesn’t have a whole lot of time for an unmotivated soul like Adam, he takes pity on him one night and introduces him to the hedonistic and moderately lucrative netherworld of male stripping via an erotic dance review show called Xquisite in which he is the star attraction. Of course, convention dictates that Adam, as the wide-eyed neophyte, will be our way into this world of unironic dance training, pelvic thrusting and thong maintenance, just as convention also dictates that his innocence will soon be corrupted. Soderbergh, however, doesn’t do convention – or at least, he doesn’t settle for it. Instead he plays around with these tropes, revealing Adam to be the sort of amoral, natural born bell-end who thrives in his sleazy new environs while shifting the focus back to the good-natured Mike, who is starting to realise that his temporary dancing gig is distracting him from what he really wants to do.
Mercifully, neither Soderbergh nor Tatum overplay this. Though there are obvious parallels with Saturday Night Fever (both share a melancholic undertow that never lets us forget how quickly reality can drown youthful ambition), Magic Mike is less melodramatic. That’s clear from the way Soderbergh handles the nascent relationship between Mike and Adam’s sister. Tatum and relative newcomer Cody Horn relate to each other in a way that feels looser and more authentic than is traditionally found in Hollywood movies. Their conversations are filled with awkward silences, flirty jokes and half-formed thoughts. In short, they feel honest and true and both end up being thoroughly engaging, without their performances feeling forced.
The same might be said of Alex Pettyfer. Though he’s a terrible actor, this fact somehow doesn’t matter here thanks to the way Soderbergh is able to tap into that air of sneering, pretty boy entitlement that has somehow gifted Pettyfer a career despite woeful turns in dreck like In Time and Beastly. He’s an annoying slime-bucket, yes, but he’s supposed to be an annoying slime-bucket. Far more endearing, if no less sleazy, is Matthew McConaughey as the owner of XQuisite. McConaughey – who’s on a roll at the moment – embraces this potentially embarrassing material with a unselfconscious, easygoing swagger that is infinitely more amusing precisely because he has the confidence to play it straight and let it all hang out, which he most assuredly does. Indeed, Soderbergh reveals himself to be something of a crack shot when it comes to the crack shot.
That he’s able to turn his hand to this material shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Few filmmakers have his cinematic smarts or are able to produce such fluid, visually coherent images. Working with “regular” cinematographer Peter Andrews (a long-running joke: Andrews is Soderbergh’s pseudonym), it doesn’t matter whether his camera is rear mounting an SUV to provide an alternative perspective on the film’s sickly-hued Tampa Bay setting or audaciously using a stripper “pumping up” before a show to frame a mid-shot of the guys getting ready to go out on stage – there are scenes here so casually brilliant in their execution that they slip by almost unnoticed. In the end, Magic Mike is another fascinating curio in a career littered with them – that’s something for which it’s worth parting with cash.
Magic Mike (15)
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn
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