Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Reid Carolin
Starring: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn
Runtime: 110 min.
One of the more ubiquitous critiques utilized in analyzing a performance is that the actor was merely ‘playing himself.’ This criticism – or insult, really – has been levied at actors of all shapes and sizes, ranging from Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg to Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. Whether this is a matter of a typecasting, talent, or some other intangible is oftentimes irrelevant, as what impacts box office numbers (that is, wanting to see a character that one has seen and loved before) does not often jibe with what the critic hopes to see (an actor evolving before our very eyes). How this is differentiated from the praise associated with an actor for performing ably in ‘the role he was born to play’ is something of a non sequitur.
At the heart of these semantics and ramblings is Magic Mike. Or, rather, Channing Tatum playing himself in the most literal sense of the term, to astonishing results.
Channing Tatum plays the titular Magic Mike, a thirty-year-old male stripper with hopes and aspirations beyond the stage. A hard worker in every aspect of his life, he yearns to turn his passion for furniture making into a business, but lacks the means to do so. Instead, he meanders between the stage and side jobs, hoping to escape the vicious cycle of debt. Along the way he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), whom he undoubtedly sees a bit of himself in as a similarly lost soul. Mike takes Adam under his wing and quickly introduces him to Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), proprietor of Xquisite Male Dance Revue, landing him a gig on-stage and teaching him how to live life in the fast lane. Adam later introduces Mike to his sister Brooke (Cody Horn), who, while skeptical of Mike’s professed dreams, will challenge him to leave behind the dangerous lifestyle often associated with strippers.
While comparisons of this nature have been made in most every review of the film, it is important nevertheless to state that Magic Mike is not simply a ‘male stripper movie,’ just as Dark Knight isn’t just a ‘superhero movie’ and The Artist is far more than a ‘silent film.’ The attachment of Steven Soderbergh as director should be enough to dissuade this line of thinking, but the rolling eyes of men dragged to see the film with their significant others seems to indicate otherwise.
With that in mind, the nuanced direction of Soderbergh is on full display from reel to reel. The editing is subtle and the pacing somewhat slow, but there is always a sense that a great deal is going on, both on and off the screen (which may actually be far more important). In typical Soderbergh fashion, the audience is very aware of the situations at hand, but is not distracted by an overwhelming amount of minutiae. There is a great deal of subtext to every action and interaction involving the characters, and the straightforward narrative allows their assorted personalities to shine through at all times. And for this, the characters and their respective plights feel real, and generate very real reactions from the audience.
The characters, of course, are only able to shine so brightly on the strengths of the direction – without talent, we are left with hollow, unbelievable caricatures. It is here that Magic Mike both succeeds and fails, on the strengths of Tatum and McConaughey, and the weaknesses of Pettyfer and Horn.
Tatum simply feels at home throughout the film, acting with such conviction that the viewing experience is almost uncomfortably voyeuristic. It is clear that he feels at home on the stage, under the bright lights and prying eyes, yet there is a strong sense that he is not comfortable in his own skin. He exudes charm and charisma, but there appears to be a cost – perhaps a fear that he is losing his soul, although such is never stated in so few words. Yes, Tatum is playing himself in the role that he was born to play … but he does so to perfection. So much so that it is not difficult to imagine him becoming a true leading man.
McConaughey is, on the other hand, almost the yin to Tatum’s yang. There is never a doubt that he is exactly where he wants to be, and he oozes power and dominance both on-stage and behind the scenes. There is a definite sense of sleaze and manipulation with his character, but it may also be that he is having so much fun that he cannot imagine how anyone else feels differently. It is a testament to McConaughey’s turn that he steals every single scene, as Tatum is superb as well. There are similarities to his character in Dazed and Confused, with Dallas coming across as an almost eerie evolution of David Wooderson.
The performances of Pettyfer and Horn are, in baseball terms, serviceable. Neither brings much to the table, but I would be hard-pressed to argue that they took much away. Pettyfer nails the role of a pretty boy looking for a hand-out, and Horn fits the mold of a protective (if not conservative) older sibling. However, those defining characteristics may well be their only characteristics, as neither is terribly fleshed-out beyond their respective roles. Some of the blame may lay in the script or the dynamism of Tatum and McConaughey, but it was a letdown regardless as both Pettyfer and Horn are major players in the story.
The remainder of the cast – Olivia Munn, Kevin Nash, Gabriel Iglesias, and Joe Manganiello in particular – fill their smaller roles with gusto. Manganiello is especially strong in his bit part, garnering what may have been the biggest gasp/laugh of the entire film.
A subtle star of the film, one that deserves quite a bit of recognition, is the gorgeous cinematography. The bright lights and the darkness of the stage and audience, respectively, are wonderfully distinguished, and the scenery and set pieces are always on vivid display. For all of the jokes that can (and will be) made about the glistening muscles in this film, the work of Soderbergh behind the camera is equally impressive.
And I would be entirely remiss to ignore the wonderful choreography found in every dance sequence. Each and every number is equally impressive and hilarious, providing for tremendous entertainment. It may not be entirely appropriate to label it as comic relief, given the subject matter of the film, but the dances themselves served as an excellent change-of-pace from the progressively more serious tone of the film.
Magic Mike is, for all of its bells and whistles, an absurdist tale that offers both hearty laughs and gut-wrenching emotional plight. It chooses subtlety and tact over sensationalism, and it is an incredibly rewarding film on both an entertainment and critical level. It is also within the top few films of 2012 to-date.