Thursday, 12 July 2012

Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh)

This story of the dreams and efforts of a self proclaimed 'entrepreneur' who moonlights as a male stripper certainly has nothing new to say in its allusions to the American dream and current economic climate, but with grace and modesty the film carries itself with upmost confidence, never feeling the need to announce its intentions as boldly as the tacky neon lights that permeate it. Magic Mike is pure Americana, a story that feels destined in its Floridian setting; with high respect for its characters, some fine performances, and a feel good natured story that neither forces itself or fears losing itself in some grit. Magic Mike is a rare example of populist American cinema, a film that would have been right at home during the 1970s film renaissance. 

The titular character of Mike is played by Channing Tatum, an actor whose past experiences in the profession forms the basis of the film. Mike dreams of one day starting his own furniture business, one in which every item is unique and irreplaceable. For 6 years he's been stripping down to his bare essentials for women in aid of his dreams, the profession certainly brings a lot of dough home but this isn't nearly enough. Mike works as a builder during the day as well as another business involving automobiles that isn't wholly revealed; he is a hardworking man who knows where he wants to go and does everything in his power to do so, but as this parable reveals it's easy to get trapped within the system you think is working for you, have no illusions that at any time its you who works for it, and it doesn't want to let you go.

While tiling a house one day Mike meets a new upstart in Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a down on his luck younger man staying on his sister's couch with a knack for destroying his chances and a mild disrespect for authority. Before long in pure 'buddy movie' exchanges Mike has taken in Adam to have him work as a production assistant for his show that night. Of course its not long before Adam is thrust upon the stage to in turn thrust himself at the rambunctious female crowd. In more buddy movie cliches we're treated to a montage where stripping gang leader Dallas (Mathew McConaughey) teaches Adam how to perform; in a prolonged and hilarious moment Dallas teaches him how to work his pelvis in front of a mirror, McConaughy is pure unashamed dynamite as he is throughout, the action is absurd, and the homoerotic levels through the roof. The unbearable exchanges between John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis in Perfect (1985) spring to mind.

On the side of Adam's rise to stripping glory is Mike's relationship with Adam's protective sister Brooke (Cody Horn). Brooke is the grounded sensibility to Mike's wild party persona and his instant attraction and pursuit of her is at first nonsensical, her 'square' lifestyle and over protective nature hints at possible past traumas and lessons learned. For a film of pure Americana such as this it's also surprisingly European in characterisation; no backstory is provided for any characters and despite the frontrunners feeling distinctly human they still tinker as mere entities. Cutting the unnecessary expositional cues that neatly explain why characters act the way they do is refreshing here as their actions are left to speak for themselves. It's never revealed why Brooke is so protective of her brother and though Mike promises to take care of him Adam begins a slippery slope with drugs, taking the film to darker territories. Director Steven Soderbergh tackled drugs perfectly in his oscar winning masterpiece Traffic (2000) and despite the issue of drugs being less relevant here, the scenes depicting Adam's drug-use are of upmost sincerity and accuracy, never using judgmental shock value and exaggeration to force impact. 

There's more than a hint of Boogie Nights (1999) to Magic Mike - the rise and fall story of American values, descent into drugs, the tacky nature of a much criticised profession, even a minor but well endowed character brings to mind Dirk Diggler's 'gift'. But the comparisons don't stop there as both films mark a return to pure American story telling that puts character before plot, stories that manage to maintain social commentary through their entertainment. Above all, like Boogie Nights the film never judges its characters and their profession, sure it never shies away from the pitfalls but it never condemns either. Clearly a passion project for Tatum, Magic Mike is clearly loved by all involved. From the joyous often breezy chemistry between the cast (McConaughey is especially a riot here), to Reid Carolin's thoughtful script, everyone seems to be having a great time. Even Soderbergh, the super talented and equally prolific filmmaker seems to have added a little more of himself this time round compared to any output of the past 10years. His handling of the dance numbers provide laughs rather than cringes as many actions seen to be seedy are brushed off with carefree ease, depicting a man dry humping a woman's face was never going to be an easy task but never is the film unpleasant. Tatum's own dance/stripping experience adds a certain showbiz quality as we witness him performing without stunt/body doubles, his talent as a performer in clear view as he loves every second.

It's a stretch to laud Magic Mike as a 'great' film but there's no question of its entertainment value and dramatic weight. The film doesn't aim high and for that it fails to be exceptional but also allowing itself success - after all, how high can a marginally categorised dance movie about strippers aim? It's a joy to see a film as predictable and hackneyed as this be such fun due to the simple care of its craft and excellently realised soundtrack. By the end you'll realise you haven't ceased smiling in quite some time.