Friday, June 29, 2012

Never Really Reaching Half-Mast: Magic Mike



This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I'm disappointed that Entertainment Weekly's "Libby Gelman-Waxner"* beat me to the punch in calling Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike the Citizen Kane of male stripper movies, as it was that reviewer, not me, who got to provide a hyperbolic quote that might compel some people besides almost all the women in America to actually go check it out. And, I suppose it's actually pretty true because if there's another male stripper movie out there that isn't rated X, or hasn't been released directly to video, I'm certainly not aware of it.

The sad thing is, Magic Mike could have earned that kind of praise legitimately if the movie had stuck to what it does best, and didn't try and earn some kind of dramatic legitimacy that ultimately doesn't really work, and only manages to almost--almost--sink the whole thing.

As you may have heard, the film is loosely based on star Channing Tatum's brief late-teen career as a male stripper in Tampa. However, in the movie, the role of the naive newcomer goes to Alex Pettyfer who plays Adam--dubbed "The Kid"--an aimless nineteen-year-old Mike takes under his wing after they meet at a construction job.

Soon after, Mike introduces Adam to his night job, and the men of the Xquisite all-male stripper show, headed up by M.C. Dallas, (Matthew McConaughey, doing his best Matthew McConaughey impersonation), and fellow dancers Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito, (Adam Rodriguez), and Tarzan, (Kevin Nash).

Adam joins the revue, much to the dismay of his sister Brooke, (Cody Horn), who is also his roommate, and clearly the responsible one in the family, but soon she too begins to fall under the charms of Magic Mike...

The first 30 minutes or so of the movie are pure fun; within the first five, you see both Channing Tatum's naked ass--which immediately resulted in cat calls from the majority of the women in the theater the night I saw it--and Olivia Mumm topless. (You hear that straight dudes who refuse to go see the movie with their girlfriends? There's something in it for you too! It will not cause you to just go gay all of a sudden!)

When the movie gets to the Xquisite club, and its backstage antics, which include the oiling up of pecs, and the pumping of penises, (again, if there's a mainstream movie that also includes a close-up of a penis in a penis pump, I'm unaware of it), and its first dance number, there's an exuberance that's contagious, and the theater crowd--me included, I couldn't stop grinning--was very clearly loving it.

For a while, I was wondering, with a bit of hope, if the movie would turn out to be the first about strippers and the sex trade to NOT deal with "Consequences" with a capital C. There's an all-around lightness to its first half. Soderbergh shoots the film so that a bright, burnt yellow glow pervades all the daytime scenes; the dialogue is clearly, for the most part, ad-libbed and improvised, so that everything anyone talks about sounds very real, in that they aren't really talking about much of anything.

But eventually, drama has to come into play. For Mike, stripping is just an easy way to make money to help fuel his "legitimate" dream: to build (ugly-ass) custom furniture. However, when it comes to bank loans in these troubled economic times, piles of cash don't mean much if you don't have a credit rating to match, and Magic Mike's charms don't seem to work on bank loan officers, at least not when he's fully dressed.

Eventually, the easy money, sex, and drugs corrupt The Kid, who could take Mike down with him. And it's at this point that the movie starts to falter. The lightness of the first half just doesn't lay a solid groundwork for the film's darker second half. What begins as nothing but a good time turns into nothing but a hangover.

And the thing is, the movie is borderline brilliant when it doesn't take itself so seriously. Every single minute that features Channing Tatum dancing is pure entertainment, and this is coming from someone who just didn't get Channing Tatum before this. I didn't get his beady eyes, his bull neck, or his penchant for mumbling. But I get it now. Oh yes, I get it. (And I'm gonna be getting it even more this weekend, as Step Up is waiting for me in my DVD player at this very moment.) His charm is palpable.

And even though he's clearly the only guy on the team who can actually dance, almost all of the dance numbers and montages are enjoyable. (Also, I love the complete fantasy that a troupe of male strippers wouldn't include at least one gay member, but I suppose that's the fantastical equivalent of men believing the strippers in their clubs actually want to have sex with them.)

The film rises when it stays focused on Tatum's talents and easy charm, McConaughey's borderline insane "den father" preaching and preening, and the backstage life of a little-scene world. But when it ventures into the so-called love story that never really reaches half-mast, and the uncharming antics of Adam, it just deflates.

Now, I'm not saying Soderbergh should have made a movie that was nothing but a series of Channing and Crew strip routines, (though goodness knows, I'd go see it, especially if it were in IMAX), but there's nothing original in the good-times-gone-bad aspects of the story, and they only manage to bring to mind movies that did that better, including Boogie Nights, (which even without the giant penis similarities is clearly an influence), and Saturday Night Fever, (the movies have almost identical closing shots).

Magic Mike is being sold as nothing but fun, its serious side being hidden so hard that they can't even bother to spell all the words in the ads correctly. And yes, the movie is a lot of fun at times; I'd gladly watch it again. It just isn't the pure magic it could have been.

*Who is, in actuality, screenwriter Paul Rudnick

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