Astonishingly prolific director Steven Soderbergh keeps on threatening to give up filmmaking for good. It’s unclear whether or not he is serious about this, or whether it will actually happen (a recent interview on Radio 4 suggested that he is now totally serious about retiring). I really hope this doesn’t happen, as Steven Soderbergh is one of the most exciting voices in American cinema, and Magic Mike is one of his best films in recent times.
I think I should begin by making it clear that Magic Mike is not the same film as the one advertised. The TV trailers and posters completely misrepresent the tone of the film. They portray it as a bubbly, fun comedy about male strippers, helmed by the drop-dead-gorgeous hunk of the moment Channing Tatum. For this reason, many audience members will be surprised by the film they end up watching. True, there is quite a bit of nudity, and if your sole reason for going is to see Tatum’s ass, you won’t be left unsatisfied. But this isn’t a bubbly comedy. It’s an intelligent, sometimes dark drama about identity and relationships. Fluffy it certainly isn’t.
Former real-life stripper Channing Tatum impressed me greatly in 21 Jump Street, and in Magic Mike (which he also produced) he is at the best he has ever been. His performance of 30-year old stripper Mike, who yearns to run his own custom furniture business, is Oscar worthy. He manages to really get under his character’s skin and succeeds in bringing out the complexities of his lifestyle and situation.
The stripping only forms a small section of the movie, however. Soderbergh keeps the focus on Mike and Adam’s friendship, and the reactions of Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) when she finds out what her younger brother is doing for a living. Mike and Brooke become friendly, although their lifestyles are rather different. She is in a monogamous relationship with a boring man named Paul, and he is busy partying life up and having threesomes. The film takes us through the relationship Mike has with 19-year old Adam (Alex Pettyfer) whom he meets while doing some construction work. Their relationship isn’t sexual, it’s platonic, but Mike does get Adam involved in a sexualised line of work: stripping. And the stripping is fairly raunchy. There are many scenes where either Mike, Adam or the other men who work for the club (including Matt Bomer and Matthew McConaughey) grind their almost-naked bodies into the laps or faces of women in the audience.
The rapport between Mike and Adam is played out beautifully between Tatum and Pettyfer. I’ve been quite brutal about Alex Pettyfer in the past, but he seems to have had some acting lessons since his appalling turn in In Time last year. He is really rather good as a young, naive guy who stumbles into a wonderland of women and drugs. The film is at its best (and its best really is blindingly good) when Mike’s life becomes affected by the actions of his friend. Quite often films who try to explore the territory of close friendships between heterosexual males never quite manage to get below the surface of their connections to each other. Magic Mike, however, is more emotionally literate than the usual Hollywood buddy movie.
There are some problems that I still have trouble dealing with. If one replaced all the naked men in the film with naked women, and then asked them to perform the same routines the men perform to an audience of males, many would label the film as sleazy, sexist, and perhaps misogynist. But apparently lusting after exposed male flesh is a guilt-free activity. This debate isn’t new, and the film doesn’t really try to unpack it or say anything about the gender discrepancy. Some may see this as a weakness, and I can understand why.
Although I started off this review by explaining how misleading the advertising for it has been, I wouldn’t want to dissuade people from seeing it. It does have some laughs, but the magnetic quality of the acting and Soderbergh’s acute observational directing are its main strengths. It’s a shame many straight men will probably chose to stay at home while their girlfriends, wives, partners, and homosexual friends or brothers hop off to the cinema to see Magic Mike. The film has something to offer both sexes, regardless of their sexual orientations or gender preferences. It’s an interesting, involving film that deserves a wide audience.
Magic Mike (2012), directed by Steven Soderbergh, is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate, Certificate 15.