Steven Soderbergh has been a very prolific director over the couple of decades he’s been working, and this film from last year is one of his most satisfying recent efforts. It deals with an understandably favoured milieu among filmmakers — the entertainment industry — but puts enough of a twist on it to make it interesting, eliciting excellent performances from its male leads.
The story is set in Tampa, Florida, amongst a group of male strippers, led by impresario Dallas (played by an impressively toned Matthew McConaughey). The main stage talent is Mike (Channing Tatum), who, to make ends meet and pursue his career goals, works a number of other jobs during the day. On one of them he meets a young man Adam (Alex Pettyfer), whose potential talent he spots, and whom he drags along to the club. These are the bones of the plot, onto which is grafted a number of familiar themes, such as the corrosive effects of drugs and partying, the desire to hit the big time, and the compromises required to achieve one’s dreams.
My main point of comparison is with similar stories in a female setting, specifically Showgirls (1995). The differences in location between Vegas and Tampa seem mostly a matter of scale — there’s a similar dissipated vibe in hypersaturated colours under the burning sun (one in the desert, the other by the beach), though in the Floridian context, Tampa is second city to Miami, which may place it closer as a setting to Reno than Las Vegas. But where Showgirls essays a bleak, bitter tone, Magic Mike is lighter by far. This doesn’t mean the film avoids darkness — Adam in particular succumbs to the usual crutches of success — it’s just that the focus on Mike means that the stripping remains a colourful background to self-betterment, and not the kind of consuming abyss of artistic expression that it plays in Verhoeven’s film.
However, Mike’s story is a fascinating one, that leans heavily on issues of class mobility and the dark side of capitalism in America. He is introduced via his work in a construction company, but the film quickly relocates to his rather more glamorous night-time sideline of stripping at the Xquisite club on the Tampa beachfront. However, it is made clear that Mike’s real dream is to design bespoke furniture, for which he is saving diligently yet cannot make headway with due to his bad credit rating with the bank (all of his income is largely in cash). Mike is clearly attractive and just as obviously successful at what he does, yet he can’t pursue his dreams for petty bureaucratic reasons that draw a clear link between his blue-collar work and his status.
Stylistically, Soderbergh (also acting as cinematographer under an assumed name) heavily uses filters to give a grungy bleached-out look to the beach and outdoor scenes; it’s only when inside at the strip club that the colours become saturated, more akin to one’s expectations of a movie, which only emphasises its constructed unrealness. Alongside this there’s a heavy emphasis on naturalistic dialogue scenes, suffused with pauses, temporising, mumbling, digressions and frustrated attempts at verbal expression — in other words, these aren’t polished movie characters when they’re not onstage.
Strangely for strippers, then, it’s the stage performances where the characters gain the power they lack outside. Though they objectify themselves through displaying their bodies, they still retain control over the means of that expression, largely acting upon the female audience rather than being submissive to them. In either case, it’s clearly an illusory power, and for Adam in particular a dangerously tempting one — when the characters attempt to extend this power beyond the club, they notaby fail (for example, when a sorority party gets out of control, or when Adam’s involvement in drugs threatens to derail his life).
As another in the canon of films about the underside of the American Dream, Magic Mike is a strong entry. Channing Tatum puts in a persuasive performance, which is high praise for me, as I’ve never been a huge fan of him as an actor. It’s also a finely-crafted film by Soderbergh, and I can certainly recommend it wholeheartedly.
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writer Reid Carolin; Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 22 July 2013.