There will be those who dismiss Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike outright for shamelessly pandering to straight women by delivering a film filled with hunky men getting naked. There’s more to the film than that, of course, but it is the primary draw, and some will see it as a needless exercise in sexual objectification.
As counterpoint, I submit the phrase “male gaze,” feminist Laura Mulvey’s infamous theory about how media is framed from the eyes of heterosexual men. It is an omnipresent trait of Hollywood films and American TV that women must be beautiful, scantily clad, and visually objectified to extremely heightened degrees while men dress and move, for the most part, like normal men. Take any summer blockbuster released this year, and you will see my point. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, for instance, was the only member of The Avengers whose costume was entirely designed around displaying the performer’s body.
I’m not trying to be a killjoy. Some movies – especially those released to multiplexes in these hot summer months – are meant to be fun, and it’s fun to watch beautiful people be beautiful. But the scales are so often tipped in favor of one half of the audience that I sometimes feel bad, watching my superhero flicks or action extravaganzas, that the women around me aren’t being visually serviced as much as I am.
All Magic Mike does is tip the scales back in the other direction. Then it knocks over the scales and sensually rubs its junk in them, because those particular scales have been ignored for far too long.
Personally, I have no problem whatsoever with that. If I can sit down to watch the latest Transformers knowing that a generous chunk of screen time will be devoted to sexy supermodels arching their back at precise degrees for the camera, then women should be able to attend Magic Mike and have an equally good time ogling the performers’ bodies.
Though I, as a heterosexual male, am not the target demographic, I can assure you Magic Mike hits its mark. It took no complex analytical feats for me to gauge the temperature of the room, for the completely full, primarily female audience gave off a wonderfully energetic vibe from start to finish. It took, in fact, only a few seconds of listening to the giddy, giggling, cheering voices around me to tell that Soderbergh knew exactly what he was doing. He and his cast are there to have a good time, and a very good time is had, even if you aren’t in to watching Channing Tatum wiggle his ass for the camera. When the rest of the audience is having so much fun, how can you resist?
The film is a passion project for Tatum, who wanted to dramatize his real life experiences as a 19-year-old stripper in Tampa. Something about that premise obviously clicked with Soderbergh, because when Tatum and his co-stars are on stage dancing through their acts, his direction feels as energized and free-wheeling as it ever has been.
Soderbergh is an inherently interesting filmmaker, and I make a point of watching everything he releases no matter how hit-or-miss the results, but Magic Mike sees the director cutting loose as much as he has at any point in his career. He’s throwing anything and everything at the wall to see what sticks, and that go-for-broke sensibility all comes together in the spectacularly choreographed stripping sequences. If you aren’t sexually stimulated by those scenes, you’ll at least be laughing your ass off at the crazy, unhinged, wildly creative nature of Tatum and company’s dance routines.
Off-stage, the movie is severely flawed in just about every area. Reid Carolin’s screenplay is a wondrous exercise in awful dialogue; several performances are downright atrocious; perplexing choices are made in cinematography and editing; and the tonal shift from comedy to character-based drama in the last act falls flat on its face.
And you know what? I loved every minute of it.
Soderbergh doesn’t half-ass things; when he makes a movie, he believes in what he’s doing, and that same giddy sincerity found across his body of work is on full, unfiltered display here. Every scene, no matter how many critical flaws it technically contains, is executed with the authority of Soderbergh’s precise and unique filmmaking voice, and if you’re on the man’s wavelength, every choice, no matter how logically baffling, seems perfectly tuned to deliver an entertaining experience.
Take, for instance, Soderbergh’s casting of Alex Pettyfer as the film’s co-lead, Adam. Also known as “The Kid,” he’s the young, awkward outcast Tatum’s Mike takes under his wing as the strip team’s newest member. It’s a pivotal role. And of all the great 20-something actors a director with Soderbergh’s clout could have landed, he chose Pettyfer, who is an honest-to-God terrible actor. Just wretched. The boy has no screen presence whatsoever; he is a charisma vacuum, mumbling through his lines without a hint of authority or effort. He’s destroyed other films. Stormbreaker. Beastly. I Am Number Four. There’s no logical reason Pettyfer should be working with Soderbergh.
But when Mike pushes Adam out on stage the first night, and both Pettyfer and his character have no earthly idea what to do in front of a large group of women, the results are stupendously funny. With no presence or charm to speak of, Pettyfer is the last actor alive who should do an impromptu striptease. But he does. With the same hackneyed, oblivious nature he lends every other performance. And it is hilarious to watch. He doesn’t even seem to inhabit the same space as everyone else, with his eyes glossed over and his expression blank. That just makes it funnier.
It’s a genius gift of miscasting that just keeps on giving, right up until the very end. As Adam’s sister, Cody Horn isn’t that much better. She appears to be completely unaware of how to give a dramatic performance, which is what the noble, uptight character demands. The dialogue Horn is saddled with is awful, but she makes it exponentially worse with awkward inflections, strange word emphasis, and a total lack of authenticity or conviction. And again, it’s simply hilarious to watch, especially opposite the charisma machine that is Tatum. By the time she’s angrily chewing out Magic Mike for corrupting her brother – or attempting to show anger, I should say – I was cackling like a maniac.
Even Soderbergh’s technical choices are delightfully baffling. The sound mix is muffled and limited, as though it was put together in mono; combined with shots that linger on those who aren’t speaking, Soderbergh really makes you listen closely to hear large chunks of dialogue(*).
If that weren’t odd enough, the entire film is framed like an early nineties flick conscious of VHS pan-and-scan. At all times, the ‘weight’ of the shot is limited to a small, roughly ‘square’ section of the wide, anamorphic frame, with everything else essentially acting as dead space one wouldn’t miss on a cropped home video release. If you know anything about cinematography, the technique is as unmistakable as it is distracting. I have no earthly idea why Soderbergh did this. But I kind of adore that he did so anyway, because it comes as such an intriguing surprise.
It’s tempting, of course, to describe these elements and many more as “so bad it’s good.” And if you’re into that sort of thing – which I, admittedly, am – you’re going to love Magic Mike. But I think it’s an oversimplification of what the movie does well. These “bad” filmmaking choices feel so deliberate, so expertly thought out and integral to the film’s spirit, that I have to imagine Soderbergh is winking to all of us from behind the camera. Even when the movie is at its most “serious,” he’s energized and enthusiastic, and it shows. With competent performances, better dialogue, a surround sound mix, and traditional framing, Magic Mike would be an interesting, if unmemorable character study. With bad performers given an awful script and seven different tones to play with? Magic Mike is positively unforgettable.
That being said, there are several performances worthy of legitimate praise here: First and foremost, Channing Tatum is absolutely wonderful in the title role. Between this and 21 Jump Street, he’s established himself as a truly exemplary comedian, and when you add to that the natural charm and presence he’s always brought to the screen, the man has evolved into one of cinema’s most promising movie stars. I simply love watching this guy work, and Magic Mike may be his best vehicle yet.
I usually despise Matthew McConaughey, but he’s definitely in his element here, having a ton of fun as a retired stripper who still enjoys warming up the audience. It helps that the sleazy element I feel undermines his traditional rom-com roles is put to good use here, as he winds up playing antagonist to Mike’s hopes and dreams.
Matthew Bomer, Joe Manganiello, and Kevin Nash don’t have much to do as various members of Mike’s troupe, but they’re all game to show their stuff to the world, and get a lot of good background laughs in the process. Although the female characters are few, Olivia Munn proves a standout; her comfortable, funny chemistry with Tatum is a definite highlight.
And for straight men worried that Magic Mike will give them nothing to ogle, Munn is in fact topless in the first scene. It’s probably not professional of me to point that out, but if it gets people into the theatre – and guys don’t need me to explain why she’s worth the price of admission – that’s for the better, because Magic Mike is absolutely worth a watch.
I cannot, of course, guarantee you will get the same kick out of it I did. It practically requires a large, enthusiastic audience for full enjoyment in the first place, a blessing many screenings will go without. If you’re a woman looking to flex the “female gaze,” go with a group of friends and have a good time. I doubt it will disappoint. Fans of Soderbergh, be they women or men, should absolutely do the same. Magic Mike is far from perfect, but that’s what I love about it. The film is a fun and fascinating work I wholeheartedly recommend.
(*) I fully recognize that the sound issue could be a flaw in the sound system of the theatre I attended. That happens from time to time. If anyone can confirm ‘Magic Mike’ was mixed for surround channels – to me, it sounded like it was all centered in one speaker at the front with little-to-no LFE – please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will note this in my review at once.
If you’d like to read more on Magic Mike, check out our interview with stars Channing Tatum and Joe Manganiello.
Magic Mike is far from perfect, but that's the fun. Whether you think Soderbergh is winking at the audience or the movie is "so bad it's good," Magic Mike is one heck of a good time at the movies.