With the exception of a very few, no actor ever started out at the top of their profession. Many began their careers at a lowly place, doing things they probably wish nobody would ever find out about. In today’s TMZ fueled society, keeping a humble beginning secret is impossible, so why not just embrace it? That’s exactly what Channing Tatum has done with his excellent, crowd pleasing semi-autobiographical stripper film, Magic Mike.
Yes, Tatum’s early career saw him working the pole for ladies carrying wads of wrinkled up $1 bills. While many would see that as an embarrassment, one thing Tatum has never lacked is confidence, and one can only imagine dancing half naked in a room full of strangers is a good way to build plenty of it. Half the women in the country probably bought their tickets months ago, enraptured by still photos and TV spots of the cast’s glistening abs and tantalizing, rhythmic dance routines. For everyone else, Magic Mike has to have been a curiosity. What reason would any guy have for wanting to see this movie? The answer is pretty simple: Steven Soderbergh.
Soderbergh, a visionary director with small scale sensibilities, he’s the absolute perfect choice to steer what is a fairly common story about a simple guy just trying to make his way and stand on his own two feet. Tatum plays Mike Martingano, the top male act at club Xquisite, which is run by Dallas(Matthew McConaughey), who has dreams of moving their popular joint to Miami for bigger fame and larger profits. Essentially, the film is all about dreams and the terrible hardships the common man has to endure in order to see those dreams fulfilled. In Mike’s case, he doesn’t want to be a middle-aged man still ripping off his clothes on a sweaty stage. He fancies himself an entrepreneur, with a passion for building custom furniture. Dallas may run the club, but Mike is the meal ticket, and when the move to Miami gets made, it’s supposedly a 10% equity share all around.
That’s right. Equity. Beefcake is what’s going to get people in the door, but does anyone expect that Soderbergh would make a movie that’s simply about bare chests and Step Up dance moves? It’s almost like the start of a bad joke: “A bunch of male bimbos walk into a bank”, as Mike and his chiseled chums discuss fair market values and equity stakes…and penis pumps. Can’t forget those. Nobody navigates the world of selling sex with as much insight as Soderbergh does, and he sees some of the ridiculousness of their job, while also noting the camaraderie and insular fame that comes with it. Soderbergh mined similar territory with 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience, and much like Sasha Grey’s character in that film, Mike is trying desperately to not have others define him by his work.
Of course that’s exactly what happens when he meets Paige(the stiff as wood Cody Horn), the straight-laced sister of Adam(a scruffy Alex Pettyfer). Meeting Adam at a construction job, Mike quickly takes the scraggly layabout under his wing, getting him a job at Xquisite, and showing him the ropes. But Mike sees a potential future with Paige, yet she sees him only as a stripper and nothing more. The film, which is pretty light most of the way, gets really dark when the pitfalls of drugs, booze, sex, and celebrity become too much for Adam to handle.
For all the raving and frenzied fans the men at the Xquisite have, Soderbergh and writer Reid Carolin spend much of the film taking the mystique out of the business. We spend nearly as much time with Mike as he and the others engage in the less glamorous part of their jobs. We see them practicing their routines, buying new outfits, and in the case of Big D**k Richie(Joe Manganiello) that also means employing the occasional penis pump.
But enough of all this plot stuff. How much skin do we really get to see? Well, in the first 2 minutes of the film you will see Tatum’s naked rear end. In a nice twist, though, we also get to see Olivia Munn topless, so there’s a little something for everybody. It’s almost like Soderbergh wanted to get that stuff out of the way, give the people what they came for, and then hook them with a surprisingly well constructed, “boy makes good” love story. Tatum has never been more charismatic and engaging than he is here, and it’s no wonder he’s become such a Soderbergh favorite. Pettyfer still can’t act, but his job is really just to look pretty. McConaughey gets to indulge a little in the pretty boy cowboy persona he’s had all of his career, but he also manages to show a little depth as Dallas quickly slips from showman when on stage, to slick businessman as soon as the curtain drops. Dallas is basically who all of the other dancers aspires to be in some way. He’s a stripper who now has his own thing, a business to call his own.
Perhaps more than any of his other films, Magic Mike has Soderbergh straddling the divide between the mainstream and the art house. On the surface, the film is a tantalizing, escapist blast with visual flair and some nifty dance routines. But strip down a few layers and there’s a surprisingly weighty story about making your own way and grasping hard for the American dream.