Did you know Channing Tatum is hot? It’s true! And Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh’s inside-but-not-probing look at a club full of male strippers, puts a lot (but not all) of the goods on display. And boy does he want to be a major star. Who needs chops when you have abs? Credited to Reid Carolin, Tatum’s producing partner, Mike broaches an interesting subject but plays it so safe that it loses any sense of urgency. It’s a star vehicle in which all players stay belted into the passenger seat.
Carolin’s script also never decides whose story it wants to tell, creating three separate points of entry into the Xquisite Male Dance Revue: godfather Dallas (Matthew McConaughy, playing a role that I doubt was a stretch but that he fills to a tee), who runs the joint and dangles the carrot of moving the locale from its current Tampa perch to Miami; heir apparent Mike, who toils in construction and makes half-hearted attempts to launch his own business making furniture out of found items; and newbie Adam (Alex Pettyfer, looking a little lost and under-playing), the young college dropout to whom Mike takes an immediate liking and shoves him, 42nd Street-style, onto the Xquisite dance floor.
Carolin could have woven any of these threads into something captivating, but Soderbergh seems to have a different vision, one that strips the material of any real stakes. This comes despite Tatum’s acknowledged early career as a stripper, which should have provided plenty of substantial grit.
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Mike is all surface. We just watch them lumber along over the course of a summer, learning little about the de facto “family” of brethren that instantly take Adam in – Ken (Matt Bomer), Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), and Tito (Adam Rodríguez). These men seem neither ashamed nor empowered. We don’t learn what brought them to Xquisite, if they have money concerns, and save for Ken, who has a wife, what their own personal sexual proclivities are. We also, literally, don’t even see it all. Despite the setting and subject, it’s possible that there is more actual female nudity than male in Mike.
And it’s also confusing as to whose trajectory we are supposed to follow: Adam’s or Mike’s?
Adam’s introduction into the world of drugs and occasional sex is never quite heightened enough, especially since Carolin also never clarifies why Adam crashes on medical assistant sister Brooke’s (Cody Horn) couch. Are their parents alive? Dead? Though its conclusion is always foregone, Mike rests on the question of will Brooke and Mike go out. And Tatum, though never demonstrating true star charisma, is a smart guy, and knows that by showing Mike in control of every scene, and acting opposite Horn, a terrible, terrible actress (her father, Alan F. Horn, is the chairman of Walt Disney Studios and once ran Warner Bros., which released Mike) who makes his work look De Niro-esque by comparison, Mike will greatly vault his image. It will.
Mike reeks of lesser movies that dabbled in the world of stripping and exotic dance – 54, Flashdance, Showgirls – as well as its most obvious forbear, Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful Boogie Nights – but after the first few minutes, the film fails to titillate. This is a seemingly calculated choice on the part of Soderbergh (who also edited and filmed the movie, under a pseudonym), whose clinical take on the nowhere-bound lives of these men strives to say something about American capitalism that I’m not sure ever becomes clear. Perhaps there is a kernel of an idea of how anything can become a commodity, including ourselves, in the interest of making a buck. That’s a starting point, though, not a finish line.
“As he looks like that, he doesn’t need to be talented,” the woman sitting with me said halfway through Mike. And that’s precisely the point. But it’s also the problem.