The best thing about Magic Mike is the sheer physicality and charisma of Channing Tatum as the titular stripper. As Magic Mike, he imparts sagely wisdom to his protégé Adam, played by Alex Pettyfer (“If a girl’s name is a flower or a car brand”, he says, “don’t ask her what she does for a living.”). He brands himself as an entrepreneur-stripper (or stripper-entrepreneur, it doesn’t really matter), dabbling in construction work, car-detailing and custom furniture by day. He’s very conscientious about his nighttime profession, making sure he doesn’t devolve into drug-dealing or any other criminal enterprise. For him, stripping is but a means to survive the horrible economy while he waits for the right time to get out to start a real career. The end, however, seems to be nowhere in sight.
In the tradition of Steven Soderbergh incorporating aspects of his stars’ pasts into the characters they play on screen (Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, Gina Carano in Haywire), Tatum’s younger days as a male stripper is what gives this movie a certain, well, magic. Every time he shows up on stage clad in scanty outfits you can buy in a regular adult store, he commands it with the winking cognizance that the audience knows about his real past. This peculiar relationship with the celebrity of Tatum and Soderbergh’s text blurs the line between fiction and reality — we know he’s performing as a fictional character, but he’s dripping with sweat from routines he may or may not have performed in real life in the past. We’re watching Magic Mike and Channing Tatum give a strip show simultaneously.
But what Magic Mike really is is a tale about the ways in which masculinity adopts to the woeful conditions of the economy. Mike, Adam and all the male strippers working in Xquisite are all hunky, well-built men that could’ve integrated into other less demeaning jobs had they existed. Instead, it is an economy fueled by the ravenous sexual appetites of sorority girls, cougars and brides-to-be that exploits these male bodies. When the male physique’s productive capacity is reduced to naught, what is there to do but sell it?
Soderbergh should have explored the implications of the emasculation of these men more instead of building a contrived narrative about Adam along the vein of Burlesque or even Rock of Ages. Part of why this story didn’t work is the relative blandness of Pettyfer as this wide-eyed kid corrupted by the dark side of stripping. Compared to the ebullient performance of Matthew McConaughey as Dallas, the owner of Xquisite, Pettyfer’s dry performance anchors this film down. I would totally watch a prequel story showing how Dallas picked up Mike from the streets and how they hustled their way together, a backstory that was teased at at different points in the film. That seemed like a far more interesting story than this one.
Equally strange is the lack of characterization given to the other interchangeable strippers played by Alex Rodriguez, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello and Kevin Nash. Is Soderbergh trying to make a point, that these people have been reduced to their bodies to the point of substitutability?
In any case, Magic Mike is not Soderbergh’s best film but it is certainly his most fun. The actual stripshows features surprisingly great and hilarious choreography that sent the groups of women in the screening I attended howling with laughter and excitement. But it isn’t just strictly a movie about strippers. At its best points, it is an examination of male bonding and masculine crises amidst a failing economy. So to the men out there, don’t be afraid of watching this with your girlfriends, there’s a lot of action for everyone.