Flesh and bone

Soder­bergh’s ‘male strip­ping’ film is not ex­actly what it says on the tin, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

YOU COULD rea­son­ably ac­cuse Steven Soder­bergh of many things – cool­ness, lack of em­pa­thy – but it would take a real ef­fort to rep­re­sent the di­rec­tor as an idiot. Fur­ther ev­i­dence of his crafti­ness can be found in the cast list for this in­ter­est­ing, cu­ri­ously de­tached film set in the world of male strip­ping. Alex Pet­tyfer, Chan­ning Ta­tum, Matthew McConaughey: the smell of prime beef­cake is over­pow­er­ing.

But some sort of mis­di­rec­tion is clearly afoot. By cast­ing ac­tors known more for their big bi­ceps than their fine dic­tion, Soder­bergh seems to be ac­tively invit­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of dumb­ing down. That


trio of names reads like the punch line to a snarky joke.

In fact, all three per­form very well in a film that ex­hibits much of the coy style we ex­pect from Soder­bergh with­out drift­ing too far up the gap in its own leather chaps. To be fair, Mr Ta­tum – once an ex­otic dancer him­self – orig­i­nated the project and can, there­fore, ex­pect to se­cure a place in the cast. Hav­ing al­ready worked with Soder­bergh on the re­cent, odd Hay­wire, Chan­ning con­firms that he knows how to make fun of his square-shoul­dered per­sona.

McConaughey, so good in the con­cur­rent Killer Joe, wades even deeper into self-par­ody as the wildly out­ra­geous chief dancer in a Florida troupe that caters to the pink cow­boy hat de­mo­graphic. The big­gest sur­prise, how­ever, is Pet­tyfer. Who knew the star of Beastly and I Am Num­ber Four could be so good as a brain­less pretty boy with a com­plete lack of self-aware­ness? More to the point, who knew he could play that role on pur­pose.

If Magic Mike has a fore­run­ner, it is, surely, Boo­gie Nights. Pet­tyfer plays the dis­con­nected loser (less sweet-na­tured than Mark Wahlberg in Paul Thomas An­der­son’s film) who, al­most by ac­ci­dent, finds him­self blun­der­ing into a wing (al­beit the least de­struc­tive wing) of the sex in­dus­try. While toil­ing on a build­ing site, he en­coun­ters Mike Lane (Ta­tum), who moon­lights as a bump-and-grind artist, and soon se­cures work as a go­pher at the Xquisite Club in a grubby cor­ner of Tampa, Florida.

Draw­ing on a plot point ex­ploited by a dozen clas­sic mu­si­cals, the film en­gi­neers events such that a key dancer is un­able to per­form and the back­stage Johnny is forced to take the stage. He is ca­pa­ble of do­ing noth­ing more than stand­ing be­fore the bay­ing crowd and mak­ing vir­ginal pout­ing faces. It tran­spires that this is ex­actly what the girls want.

It seems as if large num­bers of Amer­i­can pun­ters have been sideswiped by the slip­pery cast­ing and the raunchy sce­nario. Magic Mike made a small for­tune on its US open­ing, but then suf­fered a se­ri­ous de­cline in ticket sales. One can eas­ily see why.

The movie cer­tainly does have its fair share of bot­tom-smack­ing mu­si­cal num­bers. They are, how­ever, filmed with a sober re­serve that hints at dis­taste. Whereas Vin­cente Min­nelli and Stan­ley Do­nen (and Baz Luhrmann for that mat­ter) al­lowed their cam­era to swing with the dancers, Soder­bergh – his own pseudony­mous cin­e­matog­ra­pher, re­mem­ber – seems to be sit­ting in the stalls with his hands steepled in the “dis­ap­prov­ing arch­bishop” po­si­tion.

Magic Mike is not about the danc­ing. It’s about the of­ten sor­did, some­times touch­ing in­ter­ac­tions be­tween the stub­bornly flawed prin­ci­ples. On those terms, it works very well. The fine Cody Horn, play­ing Pet­tyfer’s sis­ter and Ta­tum’s love in­ter­est, strug­gles gamely with a cen­so­ri­ous fe­male straight out of Judd Apa­tow. But the male char­ac­ters are nicely fleshed out and gen­er­ously sea­soned with poi­sonous in­ad­e­qua­cies.

Go in search of hen-party di­ver­sions and you will be dis­ap­pointed. Ven­ture out in search of blotched, stylish pseudo-re­al­ism and you should be mod­estly sat­is­fied. What a pe­cu­liar man this Steven Soder­bergh is.

Get your kit off: Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike

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