The opening statement on this (and perhaps the only one necessary) is that when I saw Magic Mike I did so on a Friday afternoon. As we know, Friday = a standard workday. The afternoon = matinee hour oft populated by old folks and small children. My friends and I expected a few scattered groups, sure. We were even alright with the elderly man walking past telling us to "behave ourselves in there." We did not anticipate stepping into a crazy-packed, nearly sold out house. Every type of lady from 17 to 75 was there with her girl gang, and at the first glimpse of Channing Tatum's bare backside, the place erupted in leering cheers and shouted comments. "I like the looks of that!" someone hollered in the direction of our leading man's ass. Have no doubt: Hollywood hit a main vein of endless dollars when they tapped into their reserves of what some might call "man candy" (I feel gross just typing that). It was clear that the audience in the 1 PM showing had rolled in for one thing and one thing only: Dancing. Nearly. Naked. Dudes. They received them, sure. Behold the undulating abs of Joe Mangianello! The pretty boy stare of Alex Pettyfer! The spastic muscle control of Channing Tatum's relentless floor-hump! And yes, the gaping turtle mouth of Matthew McConaughey! But alas, even Showgirls had a story. It can't all be assless chaps and man thongs, much to the apparent chagrin of the "lawbreaker" audience.
While it's enjoyed a surprisingly warm critical reception, the dead silence of the otherwise raucous crowd toward the tail-end of Magic Mike was the prelude to the Tweets and status updates to come. There is a simultaneous disappointment in the depth of the story at the heart of our nice guy stripper tale, and an apparent disdain for the fact that the film had...well...any plot at all. There are any number of jokes or stupidly misplaced 'double standard' comments that could be made about the similarities between the loudly lascivious ladies and a stereotypical dude being bummed out on the amount of 'story' between sex acts in his porn, but I'll leave those to you. The key to Magic Mike is merely that it's a semisweet bit of indie-style entertainment that doesn't pretend to be as important as Boogie Nights and has no problem playing to its strengths. As such? It's a pretty damn good little movie.
Since announcing his 'retirement' from filmmaking, Steven Soderbergh has released three movies, each a thematic departure from the last. For him, this is par for the course. Soderbergh has always seemed comfortable dabbling with genre. He approaches each new story with the intention -or so it would seem from our side of the screen- of showing us something almost natural. Each film is stylized, but minimally so, and lately it seems that his own expressed willingness to eventually leave the game has allowed him to take on riskier experiments. He's a director who can pull an insane A-list cast for a simple bit of disaster horror (Contagion), or, use big names as backup to a real-life action heroine without a trace of acting ability. We shouldn't be surprised, then, that when Soderbergh shoots the tale of a bunch of male strippers, it's sort of a casual affair somewhere between Erin Brockovich and the Step Up series. Something about Magic Mike feels like a feel-good, slightly sleazy slice of documentation. While it may gloss over behind-the-scenes elements of the business (as the multitude of 'real life strippers comment on this movie' articles will tell you), its characters earn their keep not through relentless grinding and costume changes, but with big personalities and intriguing personal predicaments.
The film turns the usual "I'm just doing this to pay for college" shtick of the level-headed movie stripper on its ear and gives us entrepreneurial, hard working Mike (Tatum). Mike's a construction worker by day and an exotic dancer by night, sleeping minimal hours before slogging through the Tampa heat all over again. He's trying to pull in enough money to start his own custom-design furniture company, and seems to have come to terms with the upside of being seen nightly as a sex object. Still, Mike's a good guy. He's got goals, he's a people person, and when he sees a struggling slacker kid (Pettyfer) he tests his mettle and gives him a chance to live every 19-year old boy's dream: girls, money, and parties galore. As the Kid experiences this cheerful underworld on his own, Mike tries to keep him focused and afloat. He looks out for the Kid and befriends his recalcitrant sister (Cody Horn) as well, slowly forming a bond with her as a regular, responsible person that becomes hard to ignore. It's a very simple backstage plot, and one that's been echoed time and again in showbiz dramas of nearly every variety. The fact is that Magic Mike can't really separate itself too far from all the cliches without taking a trajectory that no audience would want to watch. We don't want to see the nice guy screw everything up. We don't want to see him fail. And if we see the nice guy's friends get in trouble by proxy, we don't really want it to be bad enough that we lose faith in our nice guy. For better or worse (I vote the former), Magic Mike doesn't step into a role it's too cheerful to assume. Soderbergh keeps everything in focus and gives us just the right touches of all the little things we need at the periphery, but he seems most interested in just managing something entertaining.
Of course, while Soderbergh is at the helm, most of the credit should be given to the men bold enough to gyrate to "It's Raining Men" for half of America. These guys put on a good show, and Channing Tatum's real-life stripper past seems to add a strange integrity and believability to his role here. While his skills as a dramatic actor may not be the best in the business, Tatum has won me over this year with his straight-up comedic performance in 21 Jump Street and the genuine, warm humor on display in his just-being-himself turn as Mike. It's hard not to like the guy, and while that may not be the best argument for leading man charisma, it undoubtedly helps sell a film about naked men dancing to the part of the audience who is interested in hearing the dialogue. While most of the floorshow doesn't share quite as much screentime as Tatum, it's worth noting that Alex Pettyfer steps out of his tabloid 'jerk' persona long enough to convince us he's capable of being adorably naive. I will also reluctantly confess that though I generally do not enjoy Matthew McConaughey, his booty-shorted manic performance as club ringmaster Dallas was really quite wonderful. If ever there was a role he was born to play, it was this one. Magic Mike captures the true, sleazy, 'alright, alright, alright' essence of Matthew McConaughey - or, at least how I've always seen him - and that's a hilarious, terrible thing. In the Magic Mike backlash of people unwilling to admit they went willingly to a movie about strippers and kind of liked it, many will bash the rigid, 'real person' performance of Cody Horn, though in many ways the things that she lacks as an actress are undoubtedly aspects of the reason Soderbergh cast her in the role. This is a surprisingly gentle, occasionally comedic, enjoyably entertaining movie about people with jobs that interfere with their lives. If you just came for the dancing? You know where to find the real thing...