When Channing Tatum stood up and revealed his bare ass to the camera a minute or two into Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike — which the actor conceived of and produced based on his own experience as a teenage dancer in an all-male exotic revue — the audience in my screening burst into a near-unanimous extended cheer. The gifts that made him a viable exotic dancer at age eighteen have recently made the 32-year-old Tatum the male movie star of the moment. His appeal is based on working-class humility paired with otherworldly charisma, an impossible body, and the intelligence to make his use of it seem effortless. Now, as then, he never fails to give us what we paid to see. But what is he really revealing? The highly calculated Magic Mike is pure Hollywood self-mythology — a neo-Depression musical, a wish-fulfillment fantasy for shitty times, an origin-of-the-star story, and a projection of that star's hoped-for future.
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Tatum's Mike is the main attraction at Xquisite, a Tampa pop-up strip club whose male dancers cater to an all-female clientele. Stripping is just one of wannabe furniture designer Mike's many jobs; on a roofing gig, he's assigned to mentor scrappy newbie Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a nineteen-year-old rebel with neither cause nor clue, who recently fucked up a football scholarship and sought refuge on the couch of his shit-together sister Brooke (intriguing newcomer Cody Horn). Mike, his own career peaking at age thirty, takes pity on the penniless Adam and brings him into the Xquisite fold. That seems to be the way things go around there; Mike himself was discovered on the street by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the club's manager/main hustler, who keeps talking about moving the show to Miami and dangling equity in front of his stars to keep them invested. As young Adam embraces this new world of easy cash and responsibility-free pussy, Mike, natch, increasingly wonders if there's a different/better life available to him, particularly because neither the fetching Brooke nor a bisexual academic played by Olivia Munn seem inclined to see a male stripper as anything but a fuck buddy.
The film suggests that the ladies' prejudices are valid. "Who's got the cock?" Dallas asks Adam during his first dance lesson. "You do. They don't." The idea that these Kings of Tampa, as members of the ragtag strip crew call themselves, are giving the local housewives and sorority girls something they don't have and desperately need is stated several times in earnest dialogue, but the actual transactions are shown as farce. That this film contains an ironic patriotic July 4 dance spectacular — with McConaughey as Uncle Sam leading a brigade of topless boys in fatigue pants in choreography belaboring the connection between automatic weapons and anatomical ones — is a given, right?
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn, Matthew McConaughey.
An extremely conventional backstage story, Magic Mike is occasionally enlivened by Soderbergh's aesthetic curveballs — the halo-shaped lens flares suggesting Adam's halcyon view of the club; a long night of debauchery with major plot consequences rendered as an experimental study in color and shadow. But the denouement, built around the hoariest of contrivances concerning the cyclical nature of stardom, squarely casts its lot against self-commodification, by extension damning the margins and endorsing the mainstream.
That throws a wet blanket on the movie's primary point of interest: its self-reflexive portrait of three distinct points in the Hollywood himbo life cycle. As the still-ogle-worthy old-timer, McConaughey is Magic Mike's most wasted asset. Dallas's on-stage patter incorporates the actor's most identifiable catchphrase — "All right, all right, all right!" — which he injected into the popular imagination via Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. In that film, McConaughey's Wooderson was the older guy who continued to hang around teenagers, almost vampirically. Twenty years later, McConaughey is essentially performing the same function here. But why? At the most fascinating moment in his career, McConaughey gets stuck with an underwritten role that demands physical exposure but is (sorry) only skin-deep.