Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriters: Reid Carolin
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
Synopsis: Mike (Tatum) is a handsome young man who works a handful of odd jobs to pay the bills, but his real ambition is to make custom furniture. While working at his construction job, he meets Adam (Pettyfer), a recent college dropout looking for employment and purpose. Looking to help, Mike brings him to his other job at Xquisite, an all-male revue, and brings him onstage to dance. The club’s owner, Dallas (McConaughey), likes what he sees and hires him. Later, as Adam becomes more enamored with the stripper lifestyle, Mike becomes increasingly disillusioned. As Adam’s straight-laced sister, Brooke (Horn), questions whether Mike is using stripping as a crutch, he begins to wonder how much longer it can last.
Analysis: Based purely on the marketing campaign, Magic Mike looks like little more than a chance for female audiences to see their favorite heartthrobs disrobe. There’s Joe Manganiello, True Blood’s resident werewolf stud as Big Dick Richie. There’s Matt Bomer from White Collar dancing as a living Ken doll. There’s Matthew McConaughey doing what he does best: taking off his shirt. And finally there is Channing Tatum, doing a raunchier version of the dance skills he displayed in Step Up. However, the film isn’t quite the hedonistic striptease we’ve been made to expect. In fact, there’s very little stripping at all; most of it plays in montage and Soderbergh never treats us to a full, unbroken routine. It’s a movie about male strippers that isn’t so much about giving females pleasure as it is about the sense of power the men get by being objects of that pleasure.
While Soderbergh does film some of the routines for maximum viewing pleasure, the camera often focuses on the reactions of the women in the audience instead of the men on stage. The first time the audience and Brooke watch Mike dance a solo routine, Soderbergh cuts almost equally between Horn’s face and Tatum’s performance. As she notices the attention Mike commands onstage, her face morphs from dismissal to curiosity as she reassesses his character. By focusing so much on Brooke’s changing attitude toward Mike, Soderbergh is in turn trying to change the perspective of the audience. Some of Tatum’s first moments in the film include a full lingering shot of his naked body from behind, but by showing what a gifted performer he is the audience is pushed to see him for more than his physical beauty. So while the film openly examines the male-female power structure, it is also subtly examining the careers of attractive male actors.
Most handsome actors spend a period of their careers playing the heartthrob, serving much the same function as the men of Xquisite in that they are primarily objects of desire for female audiences. The strippers have many of the same perks stars experience: parties, drugs, booze and women. Like the strippers, the actors’ power lies in the sexual fervor they create in their female audiences. Yet as much as the film glorifies that lifestyle, it also criticizes it. Watching it destroy Adam forces Mike to question its value. At some point in both strippers and actors’ careers the question becomes: How fulfilling can this life be in the long-term? And what elevates Magic Mike from being pure stripper movie is the way in which it examines this question not just through its characters, but through the actors who play them.
As the film sets it up, there are three stages in the stripper’s career. Adam is the inexperienced ingénue, Mike is the star at his peak and Dallas is the washed up veteran. But this breakdown also represents the status of the actors’ careers. Pettyfer is just entering the heartthrob stage, previously appearing mostly in teen-oriented romances like Beastly. On the other end of the spectrum is McConaughey. Dallas’s glory days are over and he’s now a slightly pathetic huckster. Though McConaughey’s career is not nearly as hopeless, he is at the end of his heartthrob phase and he gives an outstanding performance as a character also past the apex of his sexual power. As Dallas dances late in the film, the women are so desperate to touch him that his g-string breaks (an actual wardrobe malfunction that occurred during filming). The scene encapsulates the power these dancers and heartthrob actors truly have. The power in being able to elicit such a reaction is what keeps Mike in the business for so long, but the film posits another fate for him, as well as, by extension, Tatum.
Like Mike, Tatum has been playing the heartthrob for about 6 years, and their similarities are not purely coincidental. Tatum helped develop the script, which is loosely based on the brief time he spent stripping early on in his career. So while Mike wishes to fulfill his creative needs through custom furniture, Tatum is trying to transition from heartthrob to serious actor. Few actors ever succeed. In The Hollywood Economist, Edward Jay Epstein quotes a producer as saying, “they have to start acting, ‘as opposed to simply gracing the screen with their gorgeous presence, and many of these starlets are just not equipped for this second step.’” Before this film Tatum didn’t seem a likely candidate to make the transition, yet his involvement with various levels of the film’s production, and even his acting, suggest otherwise. Mike is his fullest performance to date, and he is using the character to move to the next level and do more fulfilling work. I for one can’t wait to see if he succeeds.