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