So Steven Soderburgh and Channing Tatum have made a male stripper movie. This was not something I was necessarily on-board for, but it turns out it's quite fun and not only on the Linda Holmes Index.*
*Linda Holmes Index calculates how hot it has to be before you will go see a movie for the air conditioning. Named for the host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour and host of the pop culture blog Monkey See--which are both definitely worth the time you waste with them.
Of course, if it hadn't been shoved down our throats for the last seventeen years that this was the Channing Tatum STRIPPER MOVIE, we might have shared a little more curiosity about the first ten minutes of the story. We could have been in Alex Pettyfer's shoes, following Channing Tatum's character around, thinking we are just club hopping, and finding out that he's A STRIPPER! Trying to get women to come to his MALE STRIPPER SHOW!!
So, in case you have been living in a convent with no access to the Internet and a life of enforced celibacy, I will summarize the plot. CHANNING TATUM IS A MALE STRIPPER!!!
Okay, there is slightly more than that. Channing Tatum plays Mike Lane, a thirty-something Tampa man who has entrepreneurial dreams and an affable manner. Not to mention muscles and dance moves. So between working construction, (apparently) owning a car detailing service, and building custom furniture from beach debris (!), he is the second in command at a male strip review. And once we establish his stripper job, we never go back to any of the other "jobs" he has. (We do get to see him turned down for a bank loan to launch his furniture business--we never actually see him ever *make* any furniture.) Because why? Because this is not a movie about a guy hustling in a crappy economy to make his dreams come true, this is a STRIPPER MOVIE.
Okay, secondarily, it is about a charming guy trying to get it together in a crappy economy, one who has business dreams, but crucially lacks the knowledge of what it would take to actually get ahead. In the scene at the bank, he gets turned down for having a bad credit score. He could take the cute loan officer's advice and get into a program to improve that number, but he doesn't seem to understand how important that score is to achieving his dreams. There is a lot of talk about "equity" in the new stripper club, but I'm not sure anybody knows what that means in a cash business. It's also not clear that for all his "businesses" that he is anything more than a tricked out handyman. So he's got dreams, he's got 80% of what it would take to achieve them, but he doesn't have any clue about the missing 20% that is going to make those dreams unachievable.
But Soderbergh doesn't really care about that. This isn't Up in the Air in a Thong--or maybe it is, since the most interesting part is what it takes to actually be a stripper. That's what the bulk of the film is about, that's what the ladies in the theater came to see, that's where the colors and lights and glamor of the movie are concentrated. And it is interesting, and full of pretty men with muscles and dance moves and hairless, oiled bodies. In case you weren't sure what you were going to be getting with this movie--see above, re: convent, lack of internet access, etc.--within the first three minutes of the movie you get to see Channing Tatum's magnificently muscled butt as he climbs out of bed and heads to the bathroom.
He then goes to a job laying tile roofs for the endless new construction in Florida, and there he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer) who is a complete noob, so Mike shows him how to do the job, and gives him a hand when his car won't start. Later that night, the two run into each other, and Mike drags Adam along, pushing him into talking to some girls at the bar. Turns out he's wrangling audience members to come to the strip club--which we already knew about because UNRELENTING INTERNET INFORMATION. So there isn't the kind of "Oh, this isn't what I thought it was going to be about" which is what Adam's arc is. Instead it's more of "when are we going to get to the club?" But what the scene does show is Mike's easy good nature, and establishes that the stripping is also going to be good natured and fun, not sleazy and desperate. In fact, the entirety of Mike's life is a "go along to get along." His charm is what has allowed him to achieve as much as he has (however much that actually is); it's his foot in the door, the opening that allows him to introduce his talents.
But it's not enough. As the movie progresses, Adam ends up stripping and loving the life of easy cash, alcohol and women. He tries to leverage his own situation by dealing drugs, but since Adam is a screw-up, that goes almost as badly as it can. Mike ends up paying off Adam's debt, nearly depleting his savings and probably giving up his furniture dreams. Somehow, this doesn't come off as a major change in his life, and it's not clear that Soderbergh considered the drug subplot to be actually central to the movie.
So what is central to this movie? Well, obviously, it's the stripping. It's almost like a "slice of life" documentary rather than a "movie about the turning point in a man's life." If not for Adam and the drug debt, there's not much fraying to Mike's life at all, really. He seems pretty happy, he's got a nice place to live, he's got a sweet car, he's got easy access to beautiful women--he's kind of living in a timeless bubble that has probably enveloped him since he was 19, just like Adam.
There are hints that he wants a different life, that he's finally maturing enough that what he has isn't going to be enough for the long term. His friend with benefits, played by Olivia Munn, gets engaged, ending that part of his life. The strip club is moving to Miami, so he needs to decide if he's going to move with it or stay in Tampa. And, because this is Hollywood, there is a girl.
Played by nepotism candidate Cody Horn, she's Adam's big sister, and so Mike continues to mentor Adam in part for her sake. The reviews have generally not been kind to her character or Horn's acting ability, and I get that. She's able to banter with Mike well enough, but there's no there there. Which makes the ending kind of unsuccessful.
HERE BE SPOILERS.YE HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Mike abruptly decides to leave stripping, to stay in Tampa. He shows up at Brooke's house with only that decision and nothing else Some reviewers (a phrase which here means Tara Ariano on Extra Hot Great--love you guys!) don't see what Mike sees in her that he would give up his life for her. And while I totally understand that criticism, I think there is something more subtle, more Soderberghian going on. Will Mike and Brooke be soul mates and is this their One True Love. No way in hell. They will be lucky to last more than a year. But! What Brooke does do for Mike is show him that he can be vulnerable, he can be something other than perfectly charming and accommodating, and he can still be accepted.
This is where those first scenes are so very important. Mike gets saddled at a construction site with a guy who not only doesn't know how to do the job, but arrives wearing sneakers--clearly a guy who is not even capable of recognizing the safety precautions he needs to take for his own sake. (This is Adam, in case that wasn't clear.) Mike teaches him how to do the job, and rescues him from himself when Adam's car won't start, and again that night when Adam can't get into a club. Mike remains affable, charming, and puts up with repeated instances of Adam's fuckwittery. So it's really no surprise that Adam screws up a sorority dance gig by giving one of the women a pill, which leads to a fight, which leads to the two of them having to leave without getting paid. Again, Mike covers for him with their boss. Then, when it turns out that Adam left behind the drugs he was supposed to sell, Mike pays off the debt, again saving Adam from himself. He doesn't even challenge the thugs about the amount Adam owes them--Adam lead him to believe that it was $1000 worth of Ecstasy, the thugs tell him it was $10,000. Mike doesn't challenge, doesn't argue--he remains affable and "in control" of the situation, even as it spirals out of control around him.
Brooke doesn't see Mike as the successful, fun guy he presents himself as. She sees him as the guy who got her idiot brother into a lifestyle that was beneath Adam's talents, and which seduced him with the easy cash and glamor into remaining an indolent screw-up. Brooke sees Mike's mistakes with Adam, and she calls him on them. For a guy used to taking his clothes off in front of women, this is actually a new experience, because she sees him for what he is. There is even a scene when she screams at him "I see you, I see you." [At least, I think this is in this movie--it's been two days now, and I am forgetting some of the details.]
She does. She sees him in his imperfection, past the glossy glamor he projects, and she is still able to accept him as worthwhile. I think this is an entirely new experience for him, and it comes at the time when his life isn't holding together quite the way it used to. This is the thin edge of the wedge that is his maturation--this is the beginning of the time when he learns that he is not going to be able to stay young and golden forever, and that the coming changes are going to be harder than he expected. Having someone--even someone as two-dimentional as Cody Horn's Brooke--able to see and accept him for who he really is inside is exactly what he needs at this moment.
So there is a great film lurking inside the shiny carapace of Magic Mike. There is also a crowd-pleasing fantasy of what male stripping could be (but probably isn't, actually, not in real life). Like Mike's actual life, the glossy surface is appealing, but ultimately is unsustainable. Soderbergh has given us the story of the first cracks in that facade, and has traced the trajectory. Mike will not fall hard and fast, but he will have to change, and it's up to him to control that new trajectory.