Magic Mike is the best male-stripper comedy-drama I’ve ever seen. Granted, it’s the only male-stripper comedy-drama I’ve ever seen, but it’s still an enjoyable and thoughtful movie that explores issues of sexual objectification, artistic integrity, and gender roles. These weighty topics come about organically through the majesty of well-choreographed and imaginatievely-designed stripping performances. The film also features surprisingly effective performances from Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer along with one of the best roles in Matthew McConaughey‘s career. Director Steven Soderbergh‘s film mostly keeps to fresh territory, and it only goes astray when it has to move through stale, undeveloped conflicts. But until it reaches those points, you’ll want to throw dollar bills at the screen.
Mike (Tatum) works a variety of odd jobs (he’s a self-described entrepreneur), but his biggest source of income is working as a stripper. He’s good at it, but his passion is to start a business designing custom furniture. One night, he runs into Adam (Pettyfer), a young co-worker at a Mike’s day job as a construction worker. Mike takes the young man under his wing and brings him (and by proxy, us) into the world of male stripping. Adam finds his passion, but Mike has his eye on the door as he’s torn between the safety of what he knows and the new life he’d like to begin.
I never knew a breakdown of gender roles as viewed through the prism of male objectification could be so entertaining. Magic Mike has a great hook that takes us into a world we don’t see in mainstream cinema (or even indie cinema, for that matter). Additionally, it doesn’t simply boil the matter down to “See, women like strippers too.” Soderbergh puzzles over the bounds of eroticism and intimacy. The film answers the question of why the performers get a thrill from their job, but it leaves us to wonder why Mike’s audience and the film’s audience are so titillated by objectification. The show’s business owner and master-of-ceremonies Dallas (McConaughey) puts it best when he tells Adam, “You are the husband that they never had. You are that dreamboat guy that never came along.” A strip show requires the audience to check notions of love and intimacy at the door, and sit down for a sexual experience without the sex. It’s a bizarre social construct since I’m sure most people would be slightly weirded out if they started getting dry-humped in public by a fireman.
Yes, the female audience members in the film go absolutely wild for the stage antics of Mike, Adam, and their fellow male strippers, and it’s worth noting that this isn’t straight stripping as one would see in a strip club. The stage performances in Magic Mike are closer to that of a burlesque show, although there are still lap dances and stuffing cash into thongs. Regardless of your gender or sexual orientation, Soderbergh and his cast make these performances ridiculously entertaining. Part of the appeal is the intimacy of the backstage relationships. Soderbergh and screenwriter Reid Carolin aren’t trying to make a serious, behind-the-scenes look at the world of male stripping (although the film is loosely based on Tatum’s pre-Hollywood life). Instead, we only have to know a handful of the characters, and we see that the strippers are a bizarre kind of brotherhood with Dallas as their charismatic, goofy, and slightly threatening leader.
The only bright colors in the film are on stage, and the realism beyond the club is shot with muted colors even if the characters are outside on a sunny Florida beach. For Magic Mike, fantasy has a time and a place, and Adam is completely enamored of being able to live that fantasy to the point where he believes he’s untouchable. Mike, however, is torn between wanting to stay in the fantasy and live responsibly on his own. He wants a 10% equity stake in a Dallas’ potentially lucrative new club in Miami, but Mike also wants to start a custom furniture business. His reasoning is that the money from one will feed the other, but it seems more like he’s become trapped in the fantasy of becoming a business owner rather than firmly making the leap from one livelihood to another.
Mike is also torn between his frivolous relationship with Joanna (Olivia Munn) and a more meaningful relationship with Adam’s sister, Brooke (Cody Horn). Unfortunately, the romantic relationship in Magic Mike is where the film drowns itself in conventional waters. Soderbergh relishes his bold picture that goes for ideas and scenes rarely seen in mainstream cinema, but the relationship between Mike and Brooke is painfully bland and familiar. The actors have chemistry, but there’s no urgency to their relationship, and they spend so little time together that we’re left to wonder why Mike would be willing to fundamentally change his life for her.
Playing to these tired conventions drains the life out of otherwise surprising and energetic feature. Tatum has given yet another strong performance this year (following his work in Haywire and 21 Jump Street), Pettyfer is remarkably sympathetic and subdued, and Dallas is a role that McConaughey was born to play. The under-developed love story may be a bit flabby, but there’s a lot of heart, pecs, brains, glutes, charm, quads, and humor in Magic Mike.