Once upon a time Channing Tatum took his clothes off for money. He still does, actually, as a successful movie star whose abs have gotten him further than his talent. Tatum is unembarrassed by his past, to the point that he produced and stars in a movie clearly inspired by it. “Magic Mike,” which opened this weekend, features the art house direction of Steven Soderbergh, who portrays male stripping as an exciting collision of a dance battle and ballet. Tatum smiles through the whole film, and one would hope that these two men, who find beauty and fun in sex work, would give us a braver movie than this one.
Unfortunately “Magic Mike” is a victim of puritanical drift. Apparently you cannot celebrate sexual exhibitionism without pausing to say “don’t try this at home.” It’s a strange assumption given that the audience has presumably gathered for a glimpse of Tatum’s bare ass and not the hues and cuts of Soderbergh’s style.
There is no way to discuss what’s wrong with this movie without spoiling it. If you love dancing, naked men and/or Soderbergh’s work, you should stop reading this and immediately go see “Magic Mike.” Otherwise, let’s proceed.
Mike is a stripper of unrivaled talent, the star of the show. He has construction jobs on the side, but it’s clear that installing roofs for $18 an hour doesn’t compete with lap dancing. And that’s fine, because he’s great at taking his clothes off, he enjoys it and, like the actor who plays him, it never makes him blush. Mike is living what many men would consider the American dream. He is confident, secure and frequently worshiped.
For reasons that are never really explained, Mike claims he would rather build ugly furniture made from driftwood and scuba tanks than perform the stunning, athletic routines Soderbergh captures so viscerally. But, like the rest of us, he can’t get a good loan. So he keeps saving and waiting for his alleged dream job, in the ugly furniture business. Meanwhile, he has a house filled with naked women and a safe stuffed with cash. Mike may say he would rather build a coffee table than indulge his “magic,” but that’s just the script talking. We never see Mike at work on his passion, but on stage he seems to have more fun than the women cheering him. Sometimes he goes clubbing to punish himself for having so much fun, by trying to have yet more fun. Poor Mike. No one wants to fund his beach detritus furniture store.
Things change for Tatum’s stripper when he takes on a protégé, The Kid (Alex Pettyfer), and develops a passing awareness of The Kid’s uptight sister (Cody Horn). She does not approve of her brother taking his clothes off in public, but it’s a step up from homelessness, so she tolerates it. Speaking to his lover, a sexually liberated psychiatrist (Olivia Munn), Mike dismisses this new woman as someone you have to feed, as in date. In other words, she is a prisoner of social norms, and he is free.
Somewhere in the background of all this, Matthew McConaughey, as Dallas, the ringleader of the strippers, gives his most entertaining performance since “Dazed and Confused,” and the movie is, like Dallas’ workout outfit, good clean fun. I would see “Magic Mike” again just to soak in more of Soderbergh’s style. The dancing is more spectacle than sexual. Soderbergh, who has made every kind of movie, has an eye for pretty pictures, and this is just another opportunity to create them. Refreshingly, Tatum has no shame, and that comes across in his performance. Despite this, the film cannot escape its script, which carries a cultural obsession with sexual guilt. What a drag.
Horn’s character, the sister, constantly questions Mike’s easygoing happiness, which she clearly does not share. After a while she decides not to have anything to do with Mike because of his “lifestyle,” and that upsets him because he has just been dumped, more or less, by the psychiatrist. Eventually, the uptight sister—who does the noble work of processing Medicare claims—hounds Mike into a state of shame. He gives away all his money, quits stripping and concedes that he has no real plan for the future. That leaves us, after 100 minutes and with the credits about to roll, in Act 2, which is to say, the pits. The sister offers to make it up to Mike by finally indulging her own fantasies and sleeping with him—a reward to him, no doubt, for his shunning of the sinful business of stripping. It’s an unsatisfying conclusion.
“Magic Mike” needs bigger balls. After all, Channing Tatum is a former stripper and he just made a movie to show us how good he is at that craft. This is not humiliation, it’s pride. Although the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, there are moments where Soderbergh’s direction reveals Tatum’s dancing as art. So why impose biblical sexual morality on all this? For the most part, Tatum and Soderbergh are throwing a porn pride parade, but they acquiesce to the tired plot, which operates on the foundation that unproductive sexual pleasure is a villain to be overcome. In the end Mike puts aside his magic and becomes an ex-nude.
Hollywood has a grand tradition of celebrating anti-heroes. The Godfather. The Gladiator. The Terminator. Shane gets to ride off into the sunset, but Magic Mike is condemned to walking around in ankle-length board shorts. He’s not a killer. He’s not even a prostitute. He’s a sex worker of the tamest variety. Yet this movie can’t build up the courage to come to his defense.
“Magic Mike” reminds me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” which featured Mark Wahlberg and his prosthetic penis trying to make it in the porn industry of Southern California. But Anderson was careful from the beginning to show the porn subculture as creepy, seedy and gross. Instead, Soderbergh delights in scenes where people are naked, drinking or high. ... It’s not disdain—it’s romance. Mike never suffers the near-death experiences, abuse and disease of Dirk Diggler, yet we are meant to feel relieved when he decides to lay down his thong. On the contrary, I left the theater saddened by Mike’s fall. He was a magical, happy boy until he met a prude who relentlessly shamed him back into the roofing business.
Here’s an ending for “Magic Mike” I would prefer: Mike gives up on ugly furniture and puritanical women and moves to Hollywood, where he becomes a big movie star. After all, that’s what actually happened.
Director Steven Soderbergh, left, gets ready to film his star, Channing Tatum, in “Magic Mike.”