Friday, June 29, 2012

Flash, Dance: MAGIC MIKE

With Magic Mike, director Steven Soderbergh continues to explore the ways in which society’s institutions can both enable and thwart ambition by turning people into products. Here he (from a screenplay by Reid Carolin) tells a story of an ambitious thirty-year-old man, Mike (Channing Tatum), working three jobs, none of them the one he most desires. He wants to make custom furniture, a way to take his passions and creativity and spend his time getting paid for something he loves to do. Instead, he’s working mostly low-paying jobs, getting paid all in cash. He can save up enough for a down payment on a loan for his dream business, but can’t get one with his bad credit. The economy has had him stuck in place for six years now in a vicious cycle of saving to no avail. Still he works. He has a mobile detailing business when he’s not haggling for better pay at his construction job. It’s there that he meets an aimless, mostly unemployed twenty-year-old guy, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), who is on his first and last day on the job. Mike feels sorry for Adam and invites him to come help out at his third job, where he works only weekend nights, where he makes most of his money: a strip club.

There, under the watch of drawling manger Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), Mike and his co-workers, guys with names like Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and Tarzan (Kevin Nash), perform goofy choreographed routines with silly props. Their performances look like nothing more than racy dance numbers until they slip off just enough clothes to scandalize and titillate the screaming audience of sorority girls and bachelorette parties. For their audience this is not about nudity or dirtiness so much as it’s about the naughtiness of escaping the norms of everyday life. Either way, it looks like easy money to Adam who is currently crashing with his older sister (Cody Horn), and so the movie turns into one of those melodramas wherein the older veteran, frustrated with his life but making it look so easy, takes the naive new guy into the fold of a business rife with temptations. Soderbergh takes it all in with his usual patient, clinically observant cinematography, which steers the film away from easy predictability.

Like Soderbergh’s 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience, this is a film about people living under a cloud of economic uncertainty, trying to get by with the money they can get selling themselves. It’s essentially an R-rated backstage drama that starts as goofy fun of a sort and then grows progressively darker as the full implications of the business sets in. It doesn’t go exactly where you’d expect, tracking not simply the younger man’s descent from naivety into jadedness, but the veteran’s growing disillusionment as well. Here’s a guy who feels like he’s been doing everything right, getting a job or three, working hard, saving up, and still he can’t get ahead, can’t find a good foothold. There’s talk of moving the club to Miami, where, we’re told, the real money is. But would that really change the situations of these men in a significant way? More money for the same objectification may not be the healthiest thing, especially as several are already suffering from mostly well-hidden substance abuse issues. The first performance of the movie, one dancer ends up passed out backstage. Later, a groupie with a pet pig is eager to pass out ecstasy. “I’m not my lifestyle,” Mike protests to Adam’s sister, who is both charmed and repulsed by his flirtatiousness.

What’s best about Magic Mike is the generous way Soderbergh has of drawing terrific performances from the entirety of an ensemble. He finds exactly the right ways to use his performers to best accentuate their skills, to draw out aspects of their personas in interesting ways. The tension between Tatum’s charm and blockheaded athleticism is used to flesh out a portrait of a man who allows himself to be objectified despite larger goals, much like his own early film roles hid his deeper talent. McConaughey’s near self-parody “alright, alright, alright” becomes a sort of incantation of sleaze, his mostly shirtless wardrobe a form of wiry narcissism. The other actors, convincing all, even stand-up comedian Gabriel Iglesias as the club’s DJ, float in and out of the story, creating a vivid portrait of this world filled with details both funny (one dancer throws out his back and shuffles off the stage after a heavyset woman leaps onto the stage and into his arms) and sad (another dancer brings his wife to a party and urges the new guy to feel her up).

The film is, in contrast to its high-energy burlesque on-stage and its funnier moments, so low-key about its off-stage melodrama that by the end it feels uncommitted and, when the film ends with its thematic cards still up in the air, the lack of resolution is at once bracing and frustrating. Still, the film is so well acted and crisply directed that the characters’ (and, by extension, the film’s) uncomfortable tension between enjoyment and depression becomes notable. As the credits roll, some characters have made tentative steps towards self-improvement. Others are left, maybe to thrive, perhaps to wallow, in their disreputable career choices. Why shouldn’t the end be so unresolved? It fits right in with the sense of economic despair that hovers around in this story of easy money and uneasy decisions.

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