In movies, generally if there’s a female role in it, generally, a large part of the time, her power comes from her sexuality, and that has done something weird in society where women think their power is their sex, that their sexuality that is empowering them to be strong women, and that is a complete falsity.
“You’re taking off your clothes like a fucking 12-year-old in the locker room.” Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) means to get the attention of his new recruit, 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer), who looks suitably surprised to be so assessed. They’re working out—say, training—in a weight room. And Adam, also called The Kid, is learning how to strip. Dallas watches himself and Adam in the mirror as demonstrates, his torso undulating and pelvis thrusting. “Fucking make it count,” Dallas says.
Dallas, who owns the show at Xquisite, a hole-in the-wally-looking Tampa club, has a fixed sense of what counts. When you dance for a room full of women, “You don’t lock in on any of ‘em,” but you remain elusive, your body an extension of your oh so propulsive mind, your genius and your control. And once you know you’ve got their full focus, once they’re anxious and waiting and yearning, “Who’s got the cock, baby? You do. They don’t.” Adam nods. He wants to make it count. Yes oh yes, he’s got the cock.
So goes the life lesson in Magic Mike.
It’s a lesson already absorbed by Mike (Channing Tatum), Dallas’ previous project, found on the street and shaped into a mighty and profitable dancer, each night working his crowd, who register their pleasure with screams and dollars stuffed into his pants. When Mike dances, Dallas rhapsodizes, he’s magic—b-boyish and beautiful, rippling and rip-roaring. The movie demonstrates this effect, more than once, with neatly choreographed numbers, men with umbrellas, men with pull-away trench coats and thongs, men with prop guns and chaps and chairs.
If they are also men with rudimentary characterizations (Tarzan is large and hairy, Big Dick Richie pumps his penis), that’s to be expected. For Magic Mike is indeed about Mike, and more specifically, how he comes to see that life lesson in less literal, more strategic terms. This revelation comes in the form of another perspective, offered by Brooke (Cody Horn). She’s also Adam’s older sister, with whom he’s crashing in Tampa. A medical assistant (apparently hardworking, though you never see her on the job) with an earnest concern for her directionless brother, she charges Mike with looking after him, even as she watches them drive off for a night at the strip club.
She offers yet more instruction when she follows them to the club and watches them again, this time from the audience. Or, not exactly from the audience, because Brooke remains distant from the other women: she doesn’t sit at a table, she doesn’t drink, and she doesn’t wave bills. Instead, she stands, framed in a low-angle close-up as if she’s on another planet entirely. As Adam and then Mike take the stage, Brooke observes.
The scene goes on for a couple of minutes: Adam’s dance is not good, setting up the ostensible magic that is Mike’s. Brooke sees her brother lumber around with a lady riding on his hips, then stays on while Mike walks out and begins gyrating expertly. For all the rowdy fun the film has other, more elaborately choreographed routines, this scene—cutting between Brooke and Mike, between Brooke and the other women—is weirdly compelling. For one thing, it’s hard to read her reaction, which might be changing or might be reflecting your own, as you wonder whether she’s supposed to be impressed or repulsed, surprised or worried. The ambiguity might be a function of Horn’s performance, your bad guessing or maybe Steven Soderbergh’s editing.
It might also be that the several possibilities raised by the scene make a case for how stripping works, asking consumers to feel confident and insecure at the same time, to purchase the product and pretend to be someone else, to own the moment and then walk away. Magic Mike does not, on its surface, ask very hard questions about stripping. The switch of focus from women to men doesn’t so much interrogate how sex-as-product is or is not a sort of power, how it might undermine identity even as it seems to assert or at least perform it.
The scene, so weird and singular, also underlines how desperately uninteresting—how trite—the rest of Magic Mike now turns (this despite a couple of other oddities, when Soderbergh follows one figure with a mobile frame while you listen to someone else talking, before that mobile frame arrives on the speaker: they’re peculiar, briefly enticing moments, but they stop there, at the end of each moment). Once Brooke watches Mike dance, they have a relationship, according to the film. And so he has to come to appreciate her seriousness and sense of responsibility, to understand the frivolousness of his current life (even though he tells himself and everyone else that he’s only doing this so he can start his own custom furniture company: “That means you’re good with your hands,” Brooke notes).
He also has to realize—via a set of increasingly abject episodes—the risk that incessant-sex-drugs poses, because, you know, when you’re 19 (or when you’re Dallas, cast here as the snaky exploiter of 19-year-olds), you think you have control that you don’t. It’s good for Mike that Brooke is so willing to like him. But it’s better for the movie when you have to guess.