Magic Mike

August 3, 2012

Steven Soderbergh’s inherently objective style of filmmaking has served him well in recent years, even as the coldness can occasionally subdue emotional engagement.  He is generally interested with processes, which he can portray in subtle and effective ways without ever crossing into boring, obsessive territory.  When it works, and the human element is palatable, the deepening in understanding can elevate scenes are whole films into something far better than you would imagine by just reading a synopsis.  Magic Mike reads as fairly typical backstage genre fare on the page, and the basic elements of the narrative don’t deviate much from what is to be expected.  It’s in the execution – in the marrying of visuals and editing, in the performances, in the writing, and especially in the approach to the practicalities and the world within which this story is taking place – that Magic Mike is elevated into not only one of the best films of the year so far, but perhaps Soderbergh’s most assured work in a decade. 

The film begins with the tried-and-true device of the new, young entrant into the showbiz world of male stripping, here knowingly referred to as “the Kid” (Alex Pettyfer).  He’s ushered into the life after a chance meeting with the titular Mike (Channing Tatum), himself about thirty years old and the main star of a strip club owned by the forty-year-old Dallas (Matthew McConaughey).  The Kid, whose name is Adam, offers us an entry point into the established world of the film, but the protagonist is Mike, already helpfully set up with a mirror of both this younger self in Adam and his potential future in Dallas.  Mike is attractive, charming, and a very good dancer, whom we first meet the morning after a night of partying and sex with psychology student Joanne (Olivia Munn), whom we understand to have a running sexual relationship with Mike that involves picking up another girl.  Mike soon meets Adam’s sister, the straight-laced and professional Brooke (Cody Horn), and he promises to take care of her brother as he enters the occasionally wild world of male stripping.  From that brief description, you can probably tell the general thrust of the plot, but again, that’s secondary to the way the story is told and, crucially, the amount of detail and nuance that is stuffed into every nook and cranny of the film.

The not unexpected desire of Mike’s to get out of stripping and start a business doing the thing he loves the most (creating custom furniture), is mentioned early on, and through the course of the film we’ll see the ways in which his life is in stasis and the reasons why he can’t just simply accomplish his goal.  Mike holds down several other jobs, including roofing (where he first meets Alex), in a bid to save up and get a loan to start his venture.  Meanwhile, Dallas has plans to move the company out of Tamp and down to Miami, which is where the real money and glamour resides.  He promises Mike an equity share in the venture, but Dallas is slippery and, though not a huckster or a charlatan, only concerned with the money and is, consequently, willing to take advantage of Mike or anyone when he can.  Still, this isn’t a story about a person unwilling to make a change to better achieve their ambitions.  Central to the film, and the undercurrent that colours almost everything in it, is simple economic reality.  There is a scene where Mike, dressed up in a nice suit, goes to a bank to secure the loan for which he thinks he’s been approved to get his business off the ground.  As he operates in cash businesses, he hasn’t built up any meaningful credit, and is, in a heart-wrenching scene, denied the loan.  He’s a successful stripper because of his looks and his unbelievable charm, but when confronted with the system that doesn’t take into account anything but the numbers, he’s powerless.  It’s one of the few times in the film where Mike will get genuinely upset and angry, and it’s sad and moving to see him struggle with his own impotence.  Economic circumstances, and the procedures within which they need to be maximized, is a constant issue.  From Mike negotiating his pay with a construction foreman, to the plastic still on his truck to keep up the resale value, to the ritual of evening out crumpled bills on the edge of a coffee table (one he built himself!) and flattening them under a heavy book, Soderbergh pays a lot of attention to basic day-to-day of making a living.  Even a subplot involving a drug deal gone bad is less about the threat of violence and life endangerment, and more about the basics of remuneration and the transaction of money.

Whereas a story like this might typically involve the protagonist coming to a realization that he needs to change his life, and making the choice to do so, Magic Mike understands that it’s not as simple as that.  In a way, everyone in it is trapped by circumstances beyond their control.  It’s easy to think of it as a companion piece to Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, which is also about someone selling their looks, their charm, and their sexual prowess to make ends meet, but the deeper connection is that of economics.  The Girlfriend Experience was dripping with the fallout of the crisis and recession of 2008, and the characters in Magic Mike are living in it.  This is where the observational approach works the best; it’s completely non-judgmental about everything, from Mike’s desperate embrace of hedonism to Adam’s descent into the hard-partying lifestyle and Dallas’ uber-capitalist dismissal of feelings and relationships (he has a great moment explaining that if he ever had a kid, he wouldn’t put him in school – he would sit him in front of Mad Money every day and the kid would be a millionaire by 18).  Soderbergh has been called the premiere anti-capitalist filmmaker working in America, and that assessment isn’t totally wrong.  Much of the film is given over to reaction shots, whether it’s small ones like Adam’s watching and attempting to engage with the other strippers for the first time, or Brooke seeing Mike dance (Horn gives a great performance here, with a mix of fascination, disgust, and something else).  Reacting is important because there are larger forces at play, and the characters can only work with what they’ve got.  It’s not a downer of a film by any means, but it’s one of the least optimistic “good times” I’ve had at the cinema in a long while.

None of this would work without the performances.  Horn does a lot with a character that could be interpreted as a little dry as she’s essentially the straight, normative force.  She’s worried about her little brother, sure, but she’s also flirtatious and sweet and understanding – as well as justifiably reticent about Mike and his lifestyle.  Pettyfer impresses by giving a credible “journey” performance from rebellious kid to party animal, and though he does stupid things, you understand his ethos and the attraction to life.  McConaughey stands out amongst the support by playing up the gauche and charming nature of a somewhat ruthless and thoroughly empty man (there’s an oil painting of Dallas in his predictably tacky house that would seem over-the-top if it were anyone else, but McConaughey sells that background detail as wholly plausible by his personality).  Tatum has had a pretty incredible year.  Ten months ago I had seen no evidence that he was anything other than a sub-par actor with beefcake good looks and a smidgen of charm, but after his small role in Haywire and his remarkably attuned comedic performance in 21 Jump Street, I’ve had a complete turnaround.  This film is, as is widely known, somewhat based on his own experiences as a stripper, and his comfort with this world and the role speaks to that.  Still, his charm and physical prowess gives plausibility to Brooke’s interest, as well as his success with the many women he has throughout the film.  Crucially, his likeability and his vulnerability save him from seeming like a dirty, shallow pig.  His dancing skills are extraordinary, and the multiple striptease performances are exhilarating in their choreography and movement.  It’s really easy to understand why he’s so successful at his work, and why he adores it.

Those dance scenes would mean nothing without Soderbergh’s direction, which is exciting but also allows for a full range of movement.  It’ll be tough for anybody else to make better use of a frame this year, and not just in the dance sequences.  He fills the frame with detail and background, giving us a controlled but wide-ranging understanding of the slightly tacky world of Tampa that these characters inhabit.  The editing, done by Soderbergh himself, is masterfully stylish without drawing attention to itself.  Overlapping dialogue from one scene to the next works to create fluidity between jobs and space so we better feel the enclosed nature of this life.  Soderbergh is known for his stylishness, but it’s rarely been better than here, where the looks work to deepen a story that has surface at the heart of it.  This is his third film in the less than twelve months, and his almost preternatural understanding of storytelling, rhythm, and visuals is stronger here than it has been in a long time – and he’s made a number of very good films in that time.  Working on a tiny budget of just about $7 million, Magic Mike is nothing short of a miracle of professionalism and artistic confidence.  It’s a genre piece raised far above its origins, and it understands modern America better than most films you’re likely to see this year.



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