REVIEW: Channing Tatum Works His Beefcakey Magic in Magic Mike
Like the world of male stripping it inhabits, Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike is naughty in gaudy but sanctioned and unthreatening ways. It teases with the promise of outrageousness, but underneath the G-string it's a practically minded coming-of-age story about a young man reaching the end of a years-long spiritual spring break. Choreographed stripteases and celebrity cast aside, the film has a lot in common with the director's 2009 The Girlfriend Experience — both are set in corners of the sex industry, share an undercurrent of economic instability and deal with how their protagonists' professions, the perception and the performative aspect of them, clank up against their personal lives. And both keep to a low-key, realistic tone that's deliberately at odds with their subject matter, one that in Magic Mike makes the film feel curiously rudderless, its off-stage journey pale and enervated in contrast with the cheesy, ebullient dance numbers it makes room for.
Like the call girl Christine/Chelsea, the main character in the earlier film played by Sasha Grey, Mike (Channing Tatum) is aware of himself as a commodity and is constantly hustling, struggling for more control over the business in which he's being offered — "I want to own something," he says, and there seems to be more passion in those words than in his long, flirty pursuit of his tough-minded love interest Brooke (Cody Horn). Mike doesn't make nearly as much money as Chelsea does, but he has side benefits that wouldn't interest her: Occasional clients who stick around to sleep with him after the show, camaraderie with his fellow dancers and the swagger that comes with publicly embracing his place as, in the words of manager/MC Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), one of the "cock-rocking Kings of Tampa."
Mike's a great stripper, but it's not what he wants to do with his life. He also runs small roofing, event and car-detailing businesses that amount to a series of odd jobs. He's saving up to pursue his dream of starting his own custom furniture business, with dedication if no particular urgency — he speaks of waiting for the market to reach its sweet spot and being able to get a good bank loan rate in ways that sound abstract, though we later see he's actually put work into his ideas and is deeply frustrated by the obstacles he's encountered. He is, in short, looking for the next step that will likely provide a way out, though when we see him grinding on stage at Club Xquisite we can see why he's not in a hurry: He sparks to life in front of a crowd — he belongs there, and his audience adores him, showering him with bills (alas, mostly ones).
Magic Mike is set over a summer in which Mike meets aimless, muscly 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer), whom he nicknames "The Kid," and Horn's Brooke, the sister on whose couch Adam is crashing. The two push Mike to reconsider his life — in Adam he sees enough promise (and reminders of his younger himself) to recruit him as Xquisite's newest performer, and in Brooke there's the potential for something serious, though she pushes him away whenever he saunters too close. As critical as these two relationships are for the film, they're unfortunately lackluster — Adam is a slack-jawed, half-formed stand-in for the unthinking pleasure-seeker Mike used to be, and beefcakeyness-aside, Pettyfer can't bring out anything in the character that could show us what Mike glimpses in him. Horn, with her strong jawline and tomboyish air, is an enjoyably off-beat pick for a romantic lead, but Brooke's forceful pragmatism gets expressed primarily through glowering. Rather than reflect a sense of mutual attraction, her interactions with Mike projects only genuine distrust of him as her kid brother's sleazy pal, to the point where it's a struggle to believe that her opinion could possibly be important to him.
Speaking as someone who's slowly come around to Tatum's meatlike leading-man qualities, I'd say this represents a step forward for the actor. He may not have the most expressive of faces, but his bro-ish friendships with the other dancers (who include Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash and Adam Rodriguez, all magnificently ripply) have a comfort and ease to them. His relationship with Dallas, his former mentor, is more compellingly complicated still. McConaughey plays the character like he's Dazed and Confused's David Wooderson all grown up and wearing a leather harness (complete with drawled "all right, all right"s), but he's calculating underneath the preening, outsized showman persona. Dallas is setting himself up to be the business owner, and while he appreciates Mike's ambition, he'd still rather have him as an employee than a partner — their maneuverings over a planned expansion and move to Miami grow steadily edgier under the familiar banter.
And when Tatum's on stage, he seems like a different performer entirely — one who's startlingly physical. Magic Mike slyly offers up a look at the actor nude from behind in an early scene, as he gets out of bed with his ongoing casual hookup Joanna (Olivia Munn). But its not actually (just) the chance to gawp at his impeccable musculature that makes Tatum such an impressive spectacle in the film — it's his dancing, the way he goes from hulking screen presence to a fluidly athletic being, aware in his movements. Before he launched his acting career, Tatum did work as a stripper for a few months, an experience that informed the film (Reid Carolin wrote the screenplay), and he has danced in a non-exotic fashion on-screen in music videos and in the 2006 Step Up. The divide between Tatum as performer and Tatum as actor gives the film an interesting unsteadiness. Set in a strip mall-filled Tampa that Soderbergh, who also served as cinematographer, tints a smoggy yellow, the movie carries the underlying message that it's time for Mike to grow up and figure out what's next. But that doesn't quite line up with the grinding normalcy with which the film depicts "responsible" living. How's that really suppose to compare with being up there in the spotlight, rolling around in money, adored?