Saturday, 1 September 2012

Underneath your clothes (there’s an endless ageless story)

Magic Mike: directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Reid Carolin

(Author’s Note: It’s been almost a month since I’ve written anything resembling a review, and it’s not for a lack of films to write on. At the moment I’m sitting on no less than a dozen films reviews which I’ve yet to make headway on. I only mention this because the case of writing on not-so-new films becomes thorny when conversation on every new release seems to have a shelf life of ten days. Nonetheless, there shall be a slew of new-ish reviews – 2012 releases – forthcoming over the next few days. Maybe.)

Experimenting with style, subject matter and story has been a main part of Steve Soderbergh’s filmography for the better part of the last decade. So, inasmuch as there seemed to be a small wave of incredulity accompanying the announcement of his most recent release, Magic Mike, a movie about male strippers there wasn’t much to go on to argue that such and such wasn’t a lucid story choice for a director like Soderbergh. As it stands Magic Mike has opened to positive reviews and audience numbers which would suggest that the “gamble” of a stripper movie with and about Channing Tatum paid off. To say that would, of course, imply that the crux of Magic Mike depends on something unusual – an invalid supposition. For, even as male strippers are not a typical subject for mainstream films (other than The Full Monty what do we have?) Magic Mike in its examination of the behind-the-scenes machinations which come with the stripper life Magic Mike becomes an examination of familiar beats of life.

Tatum’s Mike is a jack-of-all-trades with his most lucrative job being the headlining stripper at Xquisite Strip Club. While on one of his many odd jobs Mike happens upon the jobless, friendless Adam, a youngster with a latent attitude problem to boot). Adam – drifts into an alliance with Mike and follows him into the stripping gig. What follows is not so much an intricate look at the stripping trade, per se, as it is more an assessment of tentative friendship and the subtle changes money and fame (no matter how indistinct) engender. For, like so many films have observed before, the age-old question of distinguishing between art and commerce makes for interesting artistic opportunities.

Let me do a few tricks, some old and then some new tricks…
Magic Mike has a few beats working, but the most defined is its assessment of the backstage drama which comes with putting on a show. In his best films Soderbergh has always managed to use familiar tropes to good effect (Erin Brockovich subverts the typical notion of a woman against a company, Contagion is a different type of horror flick, Ocean’s Twelve is an ingenious spin on the ensemble comedy and so on) and that particular, recognisable, beat in Magic Mike doesn’t emerge as “new” or “fresh” in and of itself but Carolin’s script and Soderbergh’s direction make for a thoughtful experience particularly because of the sensitive way in which the characters are drawn. Gun to my head, Soderbergh’s finest as a director has always been his ability to get the best out of his cast and his decision to work with scripts bathed in simple beats (not a criticism) provoke nuances in the performers which his unfussy direction augment to good effect. In an early scene Adam, so smitten with his new idol Mike almost-whispers “Can we be best friends?” It’s such a slight – but effective – nod at the loneliness which permeates the lives of these people.

Pelvic-thrusting Mike, tentative performer Adam, their somewhat sleazy boss Dallas, Adam’s baffled sister Brooke – none of them is an expressly tragic character at work but all of them, even Horn’s Brooke (easily the least effectively constructed character) emerge as true life people with just enough flaws to make them realistic but drawn with enough warm to make them affable. Which is not to say that Magic Mike turns a blind eye to the potential seediness of the incidences at hand for a purely character specific drama, but even as the film will admit that, yes, the situation here is somewhat grimy and certainly not one we want to remain in forever, it’s always aware that the characters have more to offer than their direct correlation to the stripping. And when they do (McConaughey’s almost gloatingly leering showrunner) it’s not quite in the way you’d expect. And, the performances are as vivid as necessary. By a hair I’d single out Pettyfer as my MVP with Tatum an inch behind, but from the fullest character to the most speciously drawn the actors are all giving good, earnest work.
The ad-campaign suggests an unremittingly bawdy experience focused, especially, on the chance to ogle these men but Soderbergh and company are intent on evoking the things underneath. Which is not to say that Magic Mike is an especially cerebral or gloomy experience but it is a humane one and a gratifying. Recalling the nod to Adam’s loneliness, there’s a scene later in the film where Mike makes his way to a bank for a loan to launch into what he hopes will be his real future. He doesn’t get it, and we suspect early into the exchange that he won’t. The dismalness of the situation for Mike is potent, and yet – although the film doesn’t quite head into the realm of fantasy – every dismal story effect is matched by the lush photography (courtesy of Soderbergh under his pseudonym Peter Andrews). The final ten minutes do make for a send-off that becomes slightly too sweet in its attempt to sell me a decisive dose of happy ending, but it leaves you with just enough loose threads to make you wonder where do these characters go from here? Sort of in a way that makes me think a final embrace for all its sweetness might all just be a deliberate way of Soderbergh explicating the real qualms beneath.

Lovely / B+


Dan O. said...

Good review Andrew. This flick had a whole bunch of fun with itself and I think that's where my enjoyment came from with this flick. Also, can't go wrong with Soderbergh behind-the-camera.

Paolo said...

If I wasn't so lazy/swamped I'd talk about extensively how Magic Mike borrows from Eyes Wide shut e.g. the sex and the ending.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

dan that's one thing i don't touch on much in the review, but it IS a fun one. touches on serious issues but always full of humour and whimsy.

paolo why are you even swamped? i'm holding you to write on that on your space some time.