“You don’t need to talk. Just look pretty.”
So shushes Joanna, Magic Mike’s sometimes sex buddy, as Mike tries to express his feelings. This principle unfortunately holds true not only for the protagonist, but also the movie named after him. Steven Soderbergh’s newest feature, loosely based on star Channing Tatum’s life, chronicles the glamorous, seedy world of male strippers. Part American Dream, part redemption story, “Magic Mike” is a show of sex and spectacle that sparkles and shocks, bedazzling us into overlooking its rather hackneyed story.
From the opening scene where Dallas, the owner of the male dance revue Xquisite (a superbly sleazy Matthew McConaughey), tells the screaming women what they can and cannot touch, groping and grinding different parts of his impressively muscular body (the man is approaching his 43rd birthday, after all), “Magic Mike” makes it subject matter clear. Adam (Alex Pettyfer), an apathetic 19-year-old college dropout who we meet in the next scene, however, has no idea what is in store for him. Reporting to work at a construction site, Adam meets Mike—a “stripper/entrepreneur” who manages multiple businesses and dreams of having his own—gets fired, goes to the strip club with Mike, and after some complications, gets pushed onstage. Initially uncomfortable with this world of gyrating men sporting sparkly thongs, Adam is soon drawn into it by the idolization and cash thrown at him.
His sister Brooke (Cody Horn) is not so enthused. Worried about her younger brother, who spends his days crashing on her couch, she demands that Mike watch out for him and keep him out of trouble. The two are immediately attracted to each other, though Brooke is (somewhat nebulously) involved with another man and deeply disapproves of Mike’s lifestyle. Mike himself is also dissatisfied with his life, saving up all of his dollar bills to start his own business in furniture design (the number of movie men who work in this field is astounding, but that’s a topic for a different day). As the main draw of Xquisite, Mike is tied to the club by its charming, manipulative owner, who has promised him “equity” once they open a bigger club in Miami. It is this potential move to the big leagues that drives Mike to come up with bigger and better acts, allowing his dream of furniture and Brooke to grow ever more distant.
With a somewhat schizophrenic career, alternating between star-filled blockbusters like the “Ocean’s” movies and art-house darlings such as Palme d’Or winner “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” Soderbergh’s ability to put on a show with style is certainly felt throughout the film. His decision to wash out the daytime scenes with a queasy, puke-orange tone makes us feel as uncomfortable in the Florida sunlight as these creatures of the night. The scenes in the dance club, then, feel even brighter and even more fantastic, our eyes refreshed by the lights and the sparkles, ready to feast themselves on the flesh of these unbelievably hunky men. It’s a subtle move, one that pushes us even further into the addictive playground of the dance club. It’s a world that feeds off itself, the women living out their wildest fantasies through these paid performers, who fuel their lives with the adoration and passion of their clientele. If the redemption love story of “Magic Mike” tastes a little stale at the end, it is because the extended foray into the dance club asks questions about humanity and sexuality, desire and fulfillment much more effectively and piercingly than the unraveling of Mike and his dreams do.
Tatum, playing a version of his younger self, acquits himself admirably and certainly shows off his impressive dance skills formerly exhibited in “Step Up.” Pettyfer, along with the other strippers, Matthew Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Adam Rodriguez, and Kevin Nash, do well as long as their roles are to shake and grope and undulate, and not to speak, particularly in Pettyfer’s case. The real scene-stealer, despite his limited screen time, is McConaughey, as part Mephistopheles, part megalomaniac. He is everything that Mike wants to escape from, but also everything he could become.
With all its eye candy and objectification of men, the film has been praised as a refreshing reversal of gender roles that gives women rather than men what they want to see. However, pretty, naked men does not feminism make. Though women are the beholders and men the beheld, Soderbergh populates the strip club clientele with young, attractive women out celebrating 21st birthdays or sorority girls at a party. There are no gay men or older women in sight, despite the fact that real strip clubs definitely appeal to such demographics. The strippers themselves seem to have their pick of the land when it comes to sexual conquests, and they take plenty of advantage. They might be objects for women, but women are equally their objects in return. Soderbergh’s film is many things—a daring enterprise, a raunchy bacchanal, a thought-provoking look at human desire, a cliché—but a cry for feminism is not one of them.
Now playing in theatres.
Verdict: 2.5 out of 4 stars