Thursday, July 5, 2012

Magic Mike

Steven Soderbergh, the raw and experimental auteur, who helped spark the late 1980s\early 1990s American independent film boom, has always been a serious-minded filmmaker, whose provocations sometimes get overlooked by the his mastery with actors and penchant for 70s-era visual verve.  Even at his most seemingly crowd pleasing, he finds ways to undercut with either a transgressive stance (Erin Brockovich) or off beat stylization (the Ocean's films.)  Point in case, he's never exactly been a light filmmaker.  Counter that with Channing Tatum, a young, Teen Beat-hearthrob whose made a nice little niche career for himself making young ladies swoon puppy love sappy far like Dear John and The Vow.  In Magic Mike, a partial semi-taken from life story based on Tatum's early days as a male exotic dancer, there's a clear and opposing disconnect between auteur and leading actor, and in a strange sort of scenarios, it may appear that Magic Mike, an over-stylized piece romp of abs and camp, needed more of Tatum's puppy dog flair than Soderbergh's over-reaching intensity.

Tatum, an actor of uber-ubiquitiy this year and champion in his own right for his surprisingly nimble dumb-dumb act in this spring's 21 Jump Street, does his own story a certain degree of justice.  He strips, and dances, and gyrates with panache, selling himself in role and spirit with every off-kilter line delivery or half naked kick step.  There's an instant likeability, if not quite nearly enough creditability, to his take on Mike, the headliner at a sleazy Tampa male strip joint.  He's also a construction worker, womanizer and aspiring furniture maker, but it's when his on stage that Tatum, the actor showcases a never-before-seen sense of showmanship, and nicely modulated command for an admittedly nondescript character and slight movie star ease at execution, even with a treacly, uneven, and at times terribly awkward script, written by Reid Carolin.  Mike takes on a project, a young, nearly waif-like subject named Adam (Alex Pettyfer), and takes him under his wing and into the circus of the male exotic world.  The story starts out as a nearly social piece of young day-laborers and quickly turns into the male equivalent of Showgirls, while maintaining a riff on All About Eve, all with Soderbergh's favored 70s style yellow filters.  The unfortunate thing is there's more over-bloating to come.  Soderbergh can't seem to settle on a light romp, and infuses unnecessary darkness, while also piling on a second rate romantic story to the mix.

A shame, and bummer for those who turn to Magic Mike for a rarefied chance to see unapologetic male beefcake on the big screen.  Or those looking for a raucous small piece of cheese in a summer movie season dominated by aliens and superheroes.  There's but small, but nearly divinely package to the stuffed Magic Mike that nearly compensates some of the more unnecessary distractions, and it comes in the form of something most may never expect.  Matthew McConaughey plays Dallas, the owner and master of ceremonies.  Like a potent and glossily greasy mix of the Emcee in Cabaret and Burt Reynolds' porn entrepreneur in Boogie Nights, McConaughey is expertly on point, delivering a performance of such potent cheese and nearly feckless charm, one just wishes the movie were riding on his wave instead of the many discordant ones it does.  In a near perfect union of character and actor, Dallas plays to McConaughey's strengths-- a glossily vain charmer whose actions are undone by narcissism, and a penchant for not wearing shirts.  Dallas is a true believer sorts, one who by regaling false hopes, can rabble rouse his hunky troupes, even while his duping them in the process.  Had Carolin's script or Soderbergh's direction been more on the nose in consistency of tone, McConaughey would have been a rightful choice for cheese or saga.

There's a buoyancy and lightness of touch during some of the funnier, sexier bits of male strippers dancing their hearts and clothes away, but there's way too many draggier bits.  The film can't settle for bouncy, unadulterated fun, for Mike's story needs redemption, as his methods for income need a sense of judgement.  All of which comes courtesy of Brooke (Cody Horn), Adam's overprotective older sister who latches on to something in Mike.  As Adam spirals all over the map as his stripping improves (he goes by the moniker "The Kid."), Brooke becomes more and more of a pain, relegating the unneeded sense of judgements that appear not be just taken out on Mike, but perhaps, the audience, who mostly came for the ogling of half naked men.  Their subsequent, somewhat "meet-cute" courtship is draining and boring, mostly because Horn, all sneers and stink eyes, plays her disagreeable and snarky character with finicky discomfort.  Strangely, this ugly romance was staged by the same director who presented the courtship of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez with such aplomb so gracefully in 1998's Out of Sight.

In the end, it's really difficult to see what was supposed to be made of Magic Mike.  While the moments of campy pleasures of flesh on display are delivered with silly goofiness, the romantic subplot is wan and uninteresting.  While there's a underworld of sin corroding the exteriors of Mike's life, one involving drugs and deals gone bad and business ethics, there's little actual deft to Mike's interior life, or anyone else.  While Tatum is cruising on star-in-the-making overdrive, Pettyfer is nearly catatonic as his protege.  And finally, while Soderbergh might think he has something to say about sex and unabashed desires as potent as Boogie Nights before it, he's really just made a pretentious romp dressed up as art.  It's almost a literal case of the Emperor having no clothes.  C+


Anonymous said...

Interesting review. Always a pleasure to read. I think you judge it a little too harshly but you didn't say anything that wasn't on screen before us. -greg

James said...

I think the messiness of Magic Mike is part of its strange charm.

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