Friday, June 29, 2012

Magic Mike

Grade: 75 (B+)

When Steven Soderbergh announced that he was putting off his semi-retirement a bit longer to direct a Channing Tatum stripper movie, there’s no doubt it got a couple of chuckles (yours truly included). At this point, there’s no project Soderbergh would turn down for being “not his kind of thing” (he’s currently planning to do a stage version of a Cleopatra rock musical he wanted to film starring Catharine Zeta-Jones and with music by Guided By Voices…seriously). Magic Mike looks like it could be one of the big sleeper hits of the summer, with thanks to ladies who want to see Channing “The Big Brisket” Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, and Matthew McConaughey in their full glory (the midnight screening audience I saw it in was largely middle-aged women). But if the film has any staying power, it’d be a testament to the stars’ acting and to Soderbergh’s filmmaking virtuosity.

Mike Lane (Tatum) is a construction worker and aspiring entrepreneur by day, having saved up over $10,000 for a custom furniture business he dreams of. But by night, he’s “Magic Mike”, stripper at Xquisite, a Tampa club run by former stripper Dallas (McConaughey). Mike befriends and recruits 19-year-old college dropout Adam (Pettyfer) after they meet at Mike’s construction gig; soon enough, Mike dubs Alex “The Kid”, and the two are part of a stripping crew that Dallas hopes to take to Miami. But Mike doesn’t want this to be his life: he starts seeing frequent hookup Joanna (Olivia Munn) more regularly than the adventurous grad student has in mind, and he develops feelings for Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn), who’s highly skeptical of Mike and Adam’s lifestyle.

The film wouldn’t work without a star with considerable charisma, but Tatum is more than up to the task. For the first hour in particular, Magic Mike is an ingratiating, often hilarious comedy with a big heart based in Tatum’s puppy-dog earnestness, inherent sexuality, and goofball charm. That he can also dance (and, it must be said, strip) doesn’t hurt, but his sense of humor is what really kills. The film is also tapped into the perils of living in a recession: this isn’t Mike’s dream job, but it’s the best way for him and others to make money in a crummy economy. When Mike visits the bank to bring his dream of starting his own business closer, Tatum gets a great acting showcase in how he underplays Mike’s disappointment. He’s upset, but he doesn’t need to shout or even scowl to make his point. The likability he brings to the scene only makes his setbacks all the more affecting.

Most of the supporting cast acquit themselves well (Pettyfer is wonderfully subtle as the troubled Adam, Horn and Munn bring great comic timing), but the only actor who manages to steal scenes away from Tatum is McConaughey in a send-up on his public persona that’s often brilliant (his Dazed and Confused catchphrase “alright, alright, alright” is featured prominently, as are a pair of bongos). McConaughey has always been a charismatic and likable actor, but Magic Mike gives him the adventurous role he needed years ago. Sure, it’s not exactly a new thing for him to be shirtless, but for him to be relentlessly funny (“I think I see a lot of lawbreakers up in this house…and not a cop in sight”) as an MC-like host of the Xquisite club showcases how good he can really be.

Soderbergh has always been a master of showing the ins-and-outs of a business or process (see: Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brockovich, Contagion, Che, The Informant!), and Magic Mike is no exception. The film is so thorough and so good at showing just how much fun the business might be that you feel like you know how to run it by the end. Few directors get as much mileage out of digital filmmaking as Soderbergh (he’s also his own Director of Photography under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), and he manages to bring a stunning glossy look to the film that fits the Tampa Strip Scene setting perfectly. Even when the film ultimately devolves into melodrama by the end via some contrived drug problem business and the inevitable “I’m not my job!” scene, Soderbergh and co. manage to keep it mostly fresh, be it from a stunning montage, an impressive shot (Pettyfer lying on his back after an all-night bender), a sweet-natured romance between Tatum and Horn, or Tatum’s naturalistic performance (the “I’m not my job” scene isn’t as speechy as it could have been). Soderbergh next film, The Bitter Pill, is his last planned film for theatrical release, and like Magic Mike, it stars Tatum. If this is any sign of what’s coming, he’s going to have a hell of a swan song.

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