Sunday, December 23, 2012

Catching up with 2012: Magic Mike

Steven Soderbergh once again makes a film that is about the body as commodity. Magic Mike ties in nicely with his 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience.  Even though I thought the unconventional casting of then-porn star Sasha Grey in a legitimate movie was more interesting than Channing Tatum/Matthew McConaughey in a movie about male strippers, there’s a lot to admire about Magic Mike even if it sometimes delves into oft-trodden territory. I didn’t care much about the whole A Star is Born narrative arc (mostly because I thought Alex Pettyfer, who plays the young up-and-comer Adam, was pretty terrible) or the way a subplot involving drugs predictably plays out, but there’s a lot to admire about Mike (Tatum) and Dallas (McConaughey) and the keen observations surrounding their dynamic – how they interact with other dancers, how seriously they (and Soderbergh) take their business, and how they aspire to be more “respectable” – and the performances that went into making these characters stand out.

Tatum, especially, is really good here (considering the film was made because he told Soderbergh about his life as a male stripper, he’s really a no-brainer to star in the movie), obviously having no trouble with the dance scenes, but he also shows some depth in the moments where he has to interact with Brooke (Cody Horn), Adam’s sister, and in one particular standout scene where he attempts to get a bank loan. This scene alone is so good that it elevates Magic Mike onto the list of my favorite movies of the year.

The scene plays out with a nervous desperation as Mike is trying to get a loan for his true vocation, a custom furniture business. The way he dresses himself up in a professional costume complete with suit and glasses – juxtaposed with the scenes at Xquisite, the male strip club/burlesque house he works at as “lead” dancer, where he dresses up in an array of costumes that earn him a more stable income than his other many ventures – and tries to appease to the bank people to give him a good rate despite his bad credit. He does everything he can do to try and avoid the stigma of his bad credit and come off as a legitimate entrepreneurial mind:  wears a suit and glasses and brings a briefcase filled with large stacks of cash (crumpled bills that he earns at night and then flattens with books to make them less obvious as to where they came from) for a down payment to show how serious he is about his small business aspirations; he displays an affable demeanor to try and sweet talk the loan agent at the bank; claims to have already talked to the bank manager about how his credit score is moot since he has cash for a down payment. And it’s that latter part that’s so sad; the way he tries to use cash – and the desperate way he flashes the stacks in front of the load agent – in one world and how it doesn’t work like it does in his other world. It’s a tricky scene, but Tatum nails it.

The other performance to admire is McConaughey. A banner year for the actor, he may give his most enthusiastic performance of 2012 in Magic Mike. His Dallas is a skeevy heel that isn’t overtly evil, but McConaughey plays him as a man who seems to have malevolent intentions when talking about cutting Mike in as partner on their big venture to move Xquisite from the rundown clubroom in Tampa to the big league beach of Miami. There’s a history here between Dallas and Mike – and a sense that a trust was broken in the past – and I love that Soderbergh drops the viewer in medias res concerning their relationship as business partners and leaves to us to infer their history. Oh, and McConaughey is also really, really funny.

Yes, Magic Mike is a comedy, too. Soderbergh is never really laughing at these male strippers, and that’s important for us to take them seriously. but let's face it: when McConaughey is blowing fire, going over which parts of the body you can't touch, and hootin' and hollerin' during a hurricane, we can't help but laugh. Soderbergh’s very natural, small-scale approach to telling the story (a la Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience) allows the actors to have interactions that elicit genuine laughs (one of my favorite being a conversation between Mike and Adam about plastic wrap on the dashboard of Mike’s truck, and a lot of the interactions between Mike and Brooke come off as naturally sweet and humorous). The director isn’t doing anything explicitly Soderberghian here, and so stylistically there's not a whole lot going on. But that’s not crucial to the film being interesting since we’re primarily dealing with a character study. I get the sense that Soderbergh just likes Tatum, thought his story was an interesting one, and wanted to be the one to make it. 

The old chestnut of "one for the studio and one for me" seems truer for Soderbergh than any other filmmaker working today. Yes, Magic Mike seems like a big movie because of Warner's distribution of the film and the actors involved, but with its modest budget (7 million), this is one of the smaller "one for the studio" Soderbergh films. Films like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience are made possible by him making bigger studio, star-studded movies like Ocean's Thirteen and Contamination (and somewhere in between are no-mans-land films The Informant and Haywire); however, Magic Mike, with its strong focus on character development, feels more like one of his smaller, "one for him" films.  It’s those great, observant moments of characterization that make the film so much more than what I (and probably most audiences) was expecting from a film essentially marketed as “Come see Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey get naked!” There’s so much more to Magic Mike than that (well, duh, it is a Steven Soderbergh movie), and that’s what I appreciate about it; it’s kind of subversively brilliant in the way Soderbergh eschews all of the things we come to expect from a movie like this (I was really expecting a kind of Boogie Nights story arc to kick-in at some point). And even though Magic Mike isn’t like his better, more interesting, French New Wave influenced, big studio films like Out of Sight or Ocean’s Twelve, it still comfortably sits in the upper echelon of his “one for the studio” type films.


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