Movie of the week: Magic Mike

It used to be said that the difference between British defeatism and self-deprecation and American optimism and self-belief could be seen in the TV shows Yes Minister and The West Wing. The Brits are fundamentally absurd and the Americans are basically serious: the Brits laugh at ourselves and the Americans laugh with themselves — when they do laugh.

It’s the same thing with Britain’s The Full Monty and United State’s Magic Mike, the new film directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Reid Carolin, set in Tampa Bay, Florida. It stars Channing Tatum as the eponymous “Magic” Mike, a seasoned, super-handsome male stripper who acquires a young protegé, played by Alex Pettyfer.

In The Full Monty, a bunch of unemployed guys turn to stripping out of pure desperation, and the point, of course, is that they are rubbish at it. But male nakedness is itself comic; paunch and flab and wobble are funny — even Robert Carlyle isn’t a hunk as such — and revealing your penis is the ultimate punchline.

Magic Mike is very, very different. These guys can kid around, or feel worried about stuff; they feel vulnerable and one of the lesser players gets a nasty back pain from having to pick up a big woman on stage. But none of this is permitted to make them less sexy and, incidentally, they don’t reveal their manhood. In one shot, there is a shadowy outline of a male member so obviously huge that we get reaction shots of women in the audience unironically gasping.

When Tatum takes his clothes off it’s like the scene in Terminator when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s flesh gets burned away to reveal the sleek robo-skeleton. These are not buns of mere steel — they are made of some unimaginably dense substance that forms the Earth’s core. Tatum’s buttocks probably affect the tides. He is, in fact, the film’s producer as well as the star, and a former stripper himself in his teens: the dance moves he shows us are clearly not supposed to be goofy but cool.

Roads to nowhere
It’s the story of a late-quarter-life crisis. Tatum plays Mike, a guy who makes cash as a labourer and secretly pines to be taken seriously as a craftsman who creates bespoke furniture out of items washed up on the beach. He’s also a good-looking guy who works out and he got into stripping for easy money and easy sex. But somewhere it turned into his main source of income, and perhaps his very identity. Now strip-club manager Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) has big plans to take the club to Miami, maybe franchise out the whole operation and is promising Mike a partnership and a share in the profits, as opposed to just crumpled bills in his posing pouch. It is at this stage that Mike instructs nervous newcomer Adam (Pettyfer) in the ways of stripping and teasing, but his unease at helping another young guy on the road to nowhere is compounded by having feelings for Adam’s smart, pretty sister Brooke — a nice performance from Cody Horn. Mike is now pushing 30, and asking himself whether a male stripper is all that he is.

Oddly, Magic Mike somehow looks like a much darker and more challenging movie than is actually the case. Acting as his own editor and cinematographer, Steven Soderbergh will cut off extended dialogue scenes blankly, hinting perhaps at some essential banality or dreariness in Mike’s off-stage life, and the lighting has a subdued, filtered look.

Yet even when things are supposed to be going badly for both Adam and Mike, they’re somehow never going all that badly. Another type of movie might have wanted to show the guys doing the unthinkable: putting on weight, a bit of a gut, maybe even being humiliatingly laughed at by the ladies. Not here. Similarly, McConaughey’s drawling, leering host might in other circumstances have been imbued with something sinister, like the MC in Cabaret. Again, not here.

The film is, moreover, notable for no one being in the closet. There is no male orientation other than vanilla heterosexuality, and for the life of me I can’t see any unintentional or semi-intentional subtext. There is actually one older, thicker-set dancer who looks very much like Mickey Rourke in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. That, too, was a movie that found far more drama and poignancy and black comedy in the pantomime beefcake machismo.

Well, perhaps it is simply that the people involved are younger and haven’t had a chance to accumulate much emotional baggage. Tatum carries the movie confidently enough, though with less of the humour and charm he had in 21 Jump Street, and Pettyfer has really raised his game as an actor. It’s a well-handled, engaging, lightweight picture. Rumours of Soderbergh’s departure from film-making seem to be premature. But I’m sure he can make films with more muscle than this. — © Guardian News & Media 2012


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