"You're not just stripping. You're fulfilling every woman's wildest fantasies."
Demystifying sexual fantasy has been done before on film in everything from Boogie Nights to Flashdance. It's no coincidence that Steven Soderbergh's latest film, Magic Mike, owes a huge debt to both of those films, as it continues the same tradition of rectifying the bright light fantasy with the harsh light of reality. I can also state, without even a hint of irony, that it is also the best film of the summer (thus far).
Loosely based on his days spent as a male stripper in the late 90s, Channing Tatum plays the eponymous bringer of female fantasy, a man who longs to not be defined by his chosen career. "Magic" Mike Lane spends his days toiling as a construction worker and his nights at a Tampa strip club called XQuisite, but he dreams of owning his own custom furniture business. He has convinced himself that the fast cash jobs he finds himself in are a means to an end, but it's clear that the older he gets, the harder it's becoming for him to break out of the rut he finds himself in.
Mike becomes fast friends with aimless wanderer Adam (Alex Pettyfer), and fast tracks him to a career at his club. The club is run by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), who gives "The Kid" a shot. The film seems to be veering towards an All About Eve retread, but thankfully skirts that by focusing on the fact that Mike doesn't care about being usurped. The film also becomes something of a love story when Mike falls for Adam's older sister Paige (Cody Horn) who sees right through Mike's facade, understanding him better than he does himself.
The film gets off to a slow start, but once we enter the world of Dallas' club, the film comes to life. The other strippers at the club include Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Matt Bomer) & the over-the-hill, but unqualified to do anything else, Tarzan (Kevin Nash, yes, that Kevin Nash). Mike spends his time away from the club seemingly spinning his wheels, as he's unable to secure a bank loan to open his custom furniture business. A scene in which he dresses up and goes to the bank owes a bit too much to Buck's disastrous attempt to do the same in Boogie Nights, but it never feels derivative.
The Kid has his own problems as well. He falls victim to the allure of the fantasy of it all, and it's not long before he finds himself falling down the rabbit hole. It's not long before we can see him ending up in debt drug dealers, a plot development that felt forced into the film, and would likely have made the film better had it been jettisoned.
The most interesting thing that Soderbergh and his writer Reid Carolin do is how they create Mike as a character that has convinced himself that he's above the work that he does, yet is so immersed in the world, he doesn't see that he's as trapped as everyone else is by it. It's the thing that makes the film so successful, and makes Tatum's performance pretty damn good. You can never tell if he's aware that he's a startling hypocrite because he seems to believe that he isn't. I never thought I'd say this about Tatum as an actor, but he manages to do quite a lot without saying very much of anything.
The rest of the cast is good to great. Pettyfer is solid as The Kid, and doesn't give in to the instinct to make his character likable. He's okay with being a scumbag, and it makes his performance that much more effective as a result. Horn is good as well, though she overplays a key scene near the end to almost comedic effect, ruining any possible emotional impact it may have had. Nash is fantastic as Tarzan, a man with nothing else in the world other than a profession he's about twenty years too old for.
The absolute pinnacle of the cast, however, is McConaughey. This is the kind of performance he was born for. Not since his screen debut in Dazed & Confused has a director been able to wring the marrow from his bones like this. You know exactly who Dallas is just by looking at him, and the actor is savvy enough to play into every single one of your expectations while simultaneously defying them. I think he needs to be exploited by directors in this way more often, because he's such a charismatic actor and when he's on top of his game, there's no one on screen more watchable.
Magic Mike is destined to be remembered as "the male stripper movie" for the rest of time, but it's not more fitting a description than calling Traffic "the drug movie." I use that comparison because this is Soderbergh's best film since Traffic, as it is smarter than it appears to be. It never allows the audience to have too much fun without being brought back down to earth moments later. It also deals with some lofty concepts like being true to yourself and not letting your profession define who you are as a person, while simultaneously reminding us that dreams aren't enough to define you either.
Ladies, go see it, if you haven't already. I know you weren't waiting for the go-ahead from me, but you'll enjoy it more than you think that you will. Guys, I promise, I know that you've managed to convince yourself that there's nothing in this film that's appealing to you, but if you can put your hyper-masculine guard down for two hours and go see this film, you won't be disappointed. There's a lot to love about Magic Mike, and you're only making yourself look like an idiot for not wanting to get caught up in it.
PopGO Rating: 4/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]