If you’re expecting “Showgirls” with men, ladies, I’m afraid you’re sadly mistaken.
Oh, do not doubt, there’s a lot of handsome in “Magic Mike,” the new Steven Soderbergh film starring Channing Tatum as a male stripper in Tampa. Abs, pecs and glutes shimmy for our amusement as the on-screen women who come to the club where Tatum’s character works lose their minds and their cash in ecstasy. There seem to be costumes designed only to highlight that cut of muscle that draws the eye down to the pelvis (what is that muscle called? I don’t care, whatever it is it’s a miracle of evolution and should be worshipped in some sort of yearly holiday.)
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Reid Carolin
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer
However, “Magic Mike,” despite how it’s being billed, is not some shiny boy-toy, but a dark, nearly Gothic comedy-drama, a window into a strange niche-market, and what that market has to say about money and manhood. It’s about the rules we make for ourselves and for those we care about, and how easily we can break those rules without really trying. That was surprise enough for this critic, but the biggest surprise of all is the one-two punch of roles by Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, both of whom deliver performances that I could hardly consider them capable of.
Influenced by his time as a male stripper in Florida, Tatum seems determined to make this role a true breakout into serious film making. His eponymous Mike is not just a stripper, but works in construction and a variety of other places, consistently frustrated by the fact that his cash-only businesses and lack of credit mean that though he is relatively wealthy, he has no standing within the community. At the same time, he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a 19-year-old slacker who’s crashing at his sister’s and attempting to live without violating his “no-tie” rule. He brings Adam to his club (the hilariously-named Xquisite Dance Revue), and introduces him to the world of easy money, screaming women and penis enlargers.
And how to describe Dallas, McConaughey’s concoction who is equal parts boss, father-figure and dumbass older brother to the men of Xquisite Dance Revue? Every role that McConaughey plays is the same guy, of course, but in this movie, the easy-going, slightly scummy dumb blonde is folded in on itself into something infinitely darker.I wouldn’t say Dallas is a villain, per se, but rather willfully ignorant, a man who knows he can be a leader of men, but chooses to leave them alone in the dark.
Setting the movie in Tampa during hurricane season was a brilliant move, filling the world with a slightly down-at-heel quality. Houses are in constant need of repair, trees hang sadly from the wind constantly beating them, and the outdoor scenes are filmed in a humid, gritty tan that makes you sweaty just to look at it. Soderbergh, who has maybe the strangest filmography of any director alive, sews this movie together gracefully. Both the cheap thrills of the dance sequences and the heartbreaking normality of a scene where Mike asks the bank for a loan are executed well on their own, but also reflect elegantly back on one another.
And the strip sequences? They are, ahem, revealing in more ways than one. I’ve never been to a Chippendale’s-style strip club, but by the end of the movie you realize there’s a strategy to how these businesses work, despite the Recession: the collection of a variety of “types” (the Tarzan, the Latin lover, the pretty Ken doll, the cowboy), sending the guys to area clubs to flirt with lonely girls at the bar, and, as Dallas says, creating an area where women can get their ya-yas out without cheating on their husbands. And watching Tatum dance is a female (and presumably gay male) guilty pleasure to rival Ben and Jerry’s- watching him strip is very very funny, but his dancing is vehemently not a joke.
The biggest departure from “Showgirls”, or other movies that purport to have the truth about marginal lines of work, is that it’s kind and very joyful. It’s a respectful look at the men who are either forced into this for financial reasons, or join because they believe, as Mike tells Adam’s sister, “It’s money, women and a good time.” But the conversation we hold about female stripping- can it be empowering, or just degrading- still holds in this movie for men. That’s a sense of equality and honesty you wouldn’t expect from anyone. Especially not Matthew freakin McConaughey.