'Mike' is Not 'Magic,' Just Middling

This is destined to be either embraced as "real" and "authentic" or condemned as lacking a certain erotic quality, especially in the man meat department.

Magic Mike

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Matthew McConaughey
Rated: R
Studio: Warner Brothers
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-06-29 (General release)
UK date: 2012-06-29 (General release)

Who, exactly, is Magic Mike aimed at? What audience or demographic will respond to its weird, neo-realism noir? Ladies looking for slicked male parts in pulsating carnal tribute will be left feeling 'frustrated' while those hoping for a calm character study will soon realize that said cinematic stalwarts are in short supply. Is this for the Channing Tatum purists, those who wish to see the up and comer reliving his days as a male dancer? Those in lust/love with True Blood's Joe Manganiello, or UK pretty boy Alex Pettyfer? As he slowly fades away from his days as an 'important' filmmaker, Steven Soderbergh has created a small canvas conversation piece, a sexless examination of exploitation and the dreams of dudes with more muscles than motivation...or something like that.

Mike (Tatum) is the star of Tampa's premier all male review. Working for iconic club owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), he parlays his nightly earnings - as well as money from other jobs and entrepreneurial schemes - into his ultimate dream: to 'retire' and start a business making custom furniture. One day, he meets a sullen young man (Pettyfer) who has no direction. Taking him under his wing, Mike introduces him to the club lifestyle, and the other strippers, including Big Dick Mike (Manganiello), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Zorro (William Levy), and Ken (Matt Bomer). Soon, "The Kid" is the newest sensation, which makes his no nonsense sister Paige (Cody Horn) nervous. She knows her brother is a good for nothing slacker, and fears his is taking Mike for a ride. As she herself starts to fall for the good natured hunk, a possible move to Miami has everyone jockeying for prime personal and professional position.

As an experiment with no center, a story without anything to care about or truly root for, Magic Mike comes across as cynical and yet sharp. It knows that sexually uptight spinsters and ladies with little else to do except ogle semi-nude hunks will line up in droves to derive some manner of minor pleasure from this combination of beefcake and boredom. As long as they can keep the budget low (estimates have it at around $5 million), bait and switch with the advertizing (aside from a couple of sleazy shots, the trailers are as tantalizing as the actual onscreen dance material), and you've got an entire word-of-mouth-less weekend to make your money back...and if you're lucky, and the viewers who initially show up don't Tweet their tepid disappointment, you might have an 'adult' experience with legs (read: a movie for Mom and Dad while the kiddies are off to see Brave/Madagascar 3/Ice Age 4).

It's not Soderbergh's fault really. He's still up to his old tricks - lots of framed close-ups, impressionistic montages, evocative use of location and atmosphere - but there's nothing sitting solidly in the center. Reid Carolin's script, a first for the feature novice, offers up snippets of potential personality and individual traits, but relies too heavily on the overriding gimmick - men in the (partial) nude - to dig any deeper. In fact, this is the perfect example of what we critics call an "And" film. Tarzan is found passed out on the floor backstage, unable to perform his number...and? Paige is a practical individual who knows her brother is scum and will probably hurt Mike...and? Our hero has been saving up for a big bank loan, yet is turned down when it's obvious he thought everything was in place...and? Indeed, there are so many loose threads in Magic Mike that it's like looking through a dive barmaid's uniform.

Of course, the movie doesn't care. It's trying to thrive on the heated humidity of the Florida sun backed by a few bare bums. For those hoping for a full frontal assault on cinematic taboos, Magic Mike won't satisfy your sausage cravings. Instead, it snickers at genitalia, giggling along with the demo as buff guys grind the floor like a found Kardashian. HBO's Real Sex has illustrated the lengths that strippers of all sexes will go to in order to 'satiate' their audience. Here, it's all Coyote Ugly hoots and hollers. What makes this worse is that there are a lot of decent, unexplored ideas here. Mike's need to strip, for one, is never given much consideration. His various occupations get more detail. Similarly, Paige's initial disdain for her brother's newfound profession begs her constant nagging about job and money. Heck, there's even an intriguing tale to be told about the lonely and socially marginalized using the male revue as a venue for esteem and pre/post menopausal release. None of that is here.

Instead, we get an unnecessarily long sand bar party, lots of Channing Tatum in shirtless Step Up mode, McConaughey looking like he lost his stash, and the rest of the cast shuffling for their slight recognition. Previously, in a film like The Girlfriend Experience, such motion picture minutia was okay. Soderbergh had a far more interesting subject (porn/call girls), a far more compelling lead (actual adult actress Sasha Grey) and a real feel for the territory and the scene. The subtle approach added to the seedy underbelly ambience. But as he's proven with both Contagion and Haywire, Soderbergh is quickly becoming the kind of the unrealized promise. Magic Mike, more than any other film in his recent oeuvre, suffers from expectations so overblown and overplayed that it will be rare to find the fully satisfied fan.

This is destined to be either embraced as "real" and "authentic" or condemned as lacking a certain erotic quality, especially in the man meat department. If you want to see The Full Monty without legitimate local color, jokes, or a narrative arc meant to engage and entertain, Magic Mike will do the trick. On the other hand, Soderbergh and his cast deserve minor kudos for not taking the tale in the traditional, obvious directions. It takes someone with a bold vision to violate every doctrine of the skin flick and still hope you're pleases the masses. For many Magic Mike will be more than 'hot' enough. For others, this lukewarm walk on the mild macho side will be the perfect Spanish Fly antidote.


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