It’s now fairly well known that, back when he was a broke nineteen-year-old just getting his start in showbiz, Channing Tatum worked as a male stripper at a Tampa, Florida nightclub. Rather than be ashamed of his past, he has channeled it into the production of Magic Mike, which is not a straight biopic so much as a fictional comedy/drama that uses Tatum’s experiences as a springboard. He had wanted to make this film for several years, and in a 2010 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, he told Donna Walker-Mitchell that he already had a director in mind: “I’d like Nicolas Refn, who did the movie Bronson, to do it because he’s insane for it. It needs to be a crazy film and I think it’s also possible to do a cute, romantic movie.” Although Steven Soderbergh ultimately helmed the project, Tatum still got his wish in that it’s crazy and, to an extent, a cute, romantic movie.
I admittedly know nothing about the backstage world of male stripping, or even female stripping, although I suspect the people behind this film have done an adequate job of dramatizing it. A lesser film wouldn’t bother with the subtler details, such as the emasculating grooming rituals, the exhausting preshow workouts, and even the playful ribbing of the new guy. A lesser film might also have overplayed the darker aspects to the point of mindless melodrama. What we have here is a fairly well balanced cross between a character study, a behind-the-scenes drama, and a stage spectacle, the latter a surprising showcase of high production values. And then, of course, there’s the sight of good-looking young men gyrating their bodies and stripping down to their G-strings. It should be noted that the audience I sat with was predominantly female, and strangely enough, they laughed more than they hooted and hollered.
Tatum has been cast as the title character, a.k.a. Michael Lane, a thirty-year-old who works three nights a week at a Tampa strip club called Xquisite. During daylight hours, he gets by as a construction worker and a car detailer. One day, while installing Spanish tiles on the roof of a new building, he meets a handsome but naïve nineteen-year-old named Adam (Alex Pettyfer), whose temper cost him a football scholarship and who currently crashes on a couch in the home of his sister, Brooke (Cody Horn). Sensing an opportunity, Mike takes Adam to Xquisite and introduces him to the owner, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), who immediately gives him a job as a prop handler. Stripping was initially never part of the deal for Adam. But then, when one of the scheduled acts fails to begin, he’s hurriedly pushed onstage and told to do something. The best he can offer is a shy boy act, awkwardly stripping down to his boxers without doing a dance.
Half of the film involves Adam being seduced into the world of show business with promises of money, women, and partying. He’s appealed to by Dallas, who not only teaches him some basic choreography but also allows him to keep all the money women stuff into his underwear. But as the film progresses, he becomes increasingly exposed to dangerous situations and shady characters. One is Xquisite’s DJ (Gabriel Iglesias), who ropes him into the world of drugs, both as a pusher and as a user. When a private dance at a sorority house goes wrong, he loses $10,000 worth of ecstasy and finds he has no way to pay of his supplier. He will eventually be found lying next to a pool of his own vomit, which is being eaten by the pet piglet of the woman he slept with.
The other half involves Mike’s personal life, which he tries but repeatedly fails at keeping separate from his professional life. His attempts at forming a relationship with a post-grad psychology student (Olivia Munn) go nowhere, given the fact that she sees him as nothing apart from a pretty face. Because he has assigned himself as Adam’s mentor, he will inevitably become more attached to Brooke, who isn’t domineering but is understandably concerned for her brother’s well being. Although their relationship goes pretty much where we expect it to go, it is fascinating to watch a detached professional try his hand at genuine human feelings. We will also learn about Mike’s dream of starting a custom furniture business; in a surprisingly relevant scene, he discovers that banks are less than accommodating to clients with plenty of cash but rotten credit scores.
All the actors give decent performances, but the real standout is McConaughey, who maintains a difficult balance between devilish charm and sly opportunist. The latter is becomes apparent in the later stages of the film, at which point he announces that Xquisite will be moving to Miami, a more prominent and more financially secure location. His character is most engaging when he’s onstage announcing the dancing acts; he has become an expert at gauging audiences, and with a combination of subtle expressions, select words, and overt obscene gestures, he can thoroughly whip his customers into a frenzy. For some, mere spectacle will be the appeal of Magic Mike. For others, it will have more to do with subtext, especially when apparent in scenes like those with McConaughey.