“Magic Mike” alternately goofy and serious look at male stripping

“Magic Mike” should really come with a subtitle: “A Litmus Test Of How Comfortable Audiences Are Of Their Own Sexuality”. The sheer amount of stories I’ve gotten of males writing this film off, or even walking out midway through, is unbelievable. This stems of course, from “Magic Mike”s subject matter: male stripping. For once, a major Hollywood studio has seen fit to explore the eroticization of males, not females, and this alone represents an unbelievably bold step. It makes sense then, that the ever-eager vanguard of cinema Steven Soderbergh is behind it.

“Magic Mike” is based in part on the experiences of lead star Channing Tatum, producing the film in conjunction with Soderbergh. Tatum had a famous stint as a stripper prior to his Abercrombie modeling, followed by his transition into poor performances as eye-candy-for-hire, and finally his recent burst of talent and creativity as an actor. “Magic Mike” represents perhaps his boldest and most confident step yet as an actor, both playing with his hyper-heterosexual male image and displaying an emotional range not yet (successfully) displayed. His character, the aforementioned “Magic” Mike, needs to strike a balance between charisma, maturity, and damn good dancing. It’s his best performance yet, by a leap and a bound.

The film is all about Mike’s attempts to get out of his Tampa, FL stripping niche, which while not portrayed as black-and-white evil, certainly seems to be hampering his dream of opening a custom-furniture business.

Mike’s exit from his profession of six years runs parallel to the story of Alex Pettyfer’s “The Kid”, a troubled 19-year-old upstart in the business. “The Kid”, despite his lack of dancing skill, skates by on a growing drug stash and pure charm. Pettyfer’s performance, while wooden at points, musters necessary charm at points yet seediness at others.

Equally mixed is newcomer Cody Horn, playing Pettyfer’s sister Brooke, also Mike’s budding love interest. Although Horn is pretty enough, the only discernible reason I can imagine for her being cast is her father’s status as the president of Warner Bros., the financiers of “Magic Mike”. (See what you learn because of me?!) Horn’s spotty chemistry with Tatum doesn’t exactly persuade the audience, given that Tatum’s character is uprooting his entire lifestyle for a shot at love with Horn. These two performances are certainly “Magic Mike”s biggest failings, although they may be, at present, the only ones that come to mind.

Matthew McConaughey continues to ride his recent career rejuvenation, playing Dallas, the dancing venue’s sleazy owner. McConaughey steals every scene he inhabits, using his trademark off-beat sensuality to suggest more villainy than most major blockbuster villains ever could. First-time writer Reid Carolin depicts all of these characters very vividly, but not through rambling, epic monologues; rather, the moments in which they choose to be silent. To observe. To plot.

Seedy though it can be tonally, “Magic Mike” should be noted for what it is: a hell of a lot of fun. The dance sequences in this film seem to function as both genuinely titillating for the female audience, yet goofy enough that others can laugh it off. The costumes, moves, and (yes) props employed here make for some of the summer’s funniest gags.

Director Steven Soderbergh dials his presence back quite a bit aesthetically, not calling attention to himself with flashy camera moves or transitions as he tends to with past projects. But where his influence is felt lies in “Magic Mike”s subtext. “Magic Mike” is an analysis of an institution’s potential to engulf people whole. Just as virus-propelled panic swallowed Soderbergh’s “Contagion” cast, drugs his “Traffic” characters and corporate interests his “Erin Brokovich”, so too can dancing take individuals and strip them to their worst. Funny how this exact act, stripping, seems to highlight this team, both behind and in front of the camera, at their best. B+

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