One of my favorite arguments regarding film criticism is the idea that a movie should always be judged solely on its own merits. It's a nice thought, but an irrelevant one, since our brains have developed past those of fish. Human beings are gifted with memories, and memories allow us to appreciate everything from a fine meal to art. Without an innate and often subconscious ability to compare, you might think that White Castle hamburgers are the tastiest foodstuff on the planet, and that Transformers: Dark of the Moon had an Oscar-worthy screenplay.
So, when you ask me what I think of Magic Mike, and the first sentence out of my mouth has the phrase "Boogie Nights" in it, don't be surprised. If you've seen either of these movies, it's impossible to watch the other and not find striking similarities. The question then becomes, "Which film did the story better?"
This is a rare case of my being able to say that I really like one and absolutely love the other--instead of getting down into the hate weeds, where I've spent way too much time lately. In Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson painted a lurid cautionary tale about the late-70s porn scene, as experienced by a naive kid who becomes an industry superstar. Magic Mike isn't nearly as daring or interesting as that movie, but in their story about a naive kid who rises through the ranks of a Tampa strip club, director Steven Soderbergh and writer Reid Carolin provide a safer, sexier take on similar material, while throwing the audience one hell of a party.
The film's biggest surprise is that star Channing Tatum isn't its central figure. That role goes to Alex Pettyfer, who plays a recent Tampa transplant named Adam. He meets Tatum's Mike on a construction site and then runs into him outside a local hot spot. Mike gets Adam inside in exchange for a favor--which turns out to involve performing at the male strip club where Mike dances part-time (another performer passed out backstage right as he was supposed to go on). The club is run by a laid-back Texan named Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), who oversees a bunch of really cut misfits with insane, cash-generating moves.
Mike takes Adam fully under his wing, introducing him to a moneyed lifestyle of easy hours and casual sex with fans of the show. Soon, we meet Adam's sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), a sour-faced medical assistant who worries that her brother is getting into a world of seediness and drugs. Of course, she's right, but Carolin mercifully confines that chapter to the end of the movie. Magic Mike isn't strictly a clichéd fall-from-grace picture; it's mostly about the freeing silliness of stripping.
In the movies, female strip clubs are dingy, depressing places where artificially enhanced women shake their wares as skeevy looking businessmen throw dollars at them like food pellets. In Soderbergh's world, Dallas' club is a performance venue, complete with costumes, sets and props. They're all secondary to the flailing banana hammocks, of course, but the audiences seem genuinely engaged in a party--rather than being a sad assortment of loners wasting money on something they could easily watch at home.
Even in the daylight scenes, Soderbergh keeps up a lively pace by fully exploiting Tatum's energy and earnestness--which carry the film through a handful of rough patches. A sub-plot involving Mike's desire to open a custom furniture business goes nowhere (more on that in a minute), and serves only to give us a scene where he's denied a bank loan (a scene that's one Don Cheadle away from being a direct Boogie Nights lift*). As pointless as this all is, I give the actor much credit for making me want to see his character succeed. It doesn't hurt that Tatum's real-life history as a dancer makes his stage acts authentically thrilling, even mesmerizing.
Magic Mike hits a wall when the seriousness sets in. Adam gets hooked on drugs right before an orgy, and within five minutes of movie time, he's in full Dirk-Diggler-on-coke mode: botching deals, blowing up at the people who made him successful, and running afoul of thuggish suppliers. As ridiculous (and familiar) as this all is, I really liked Carolin's resolution, which sees Mike putting his dreams on the line to help a friend. It's a noble move that doesn't pay off, and I thought the movie would end on a fittingly reflective note: Dallas tries to squeeze Mike out of a Miami club deal they'd been working on; Mike has a nasty falling out with Brooke that betrays every decent moment they'd shared together; and Mike realizes he's too old and not jaded enough to be a career stripper.
But because Magic Mike is on the Ocean's Eleven end of the Soderbergh spectrum instead of, say, The Girlfriend Experience end, the filmmakers slap on a tidier conclusion than the story actually needs. Following a fight that would likely cause the average couple to never speak again, Mike quits his job and drives to Brooke's house. They make up and make plans for some amazing sex as the credits begin to roll. Look, I'm not opposed to happy endings; I'm opposed to dishonest happy endings.
The truth is, Mike doesn't need Brooke in his life in order to be happy. She's a disapproving shrew who can't let go of her preconceived notions about the "kinds of people" who do that for a living--until the screenplay tells her to for some reason. Had Mike channeled his smarts, talent, and ambition into one of the other two or three businesses he'd created on the side, he might have been just as content staying single and working on his dreams. But that would've probably confused the crowds of middle-aged women who'd come out to see hot men sweep girls off their feet (literally and figuratively).
Despite its third act failings, I highly recommend Magic Mike. It's funny, it's touching, and it feels very authentic.** It also offers definitive proof that Channing Tatum can not only act, but can shine. When removed from the constraints of lame action movies and bullshit romantic dramas (which this film becomes, briefly), he can be charming and genuinely funny. There are a number of scenes here in which the actors appear to improvise their lines, and I swear Tatum flubs one on camera. His recovery is a bit rough, which sometimes happens in real conversations. This raw moment offers another fine example of how Soderbergh draws reality from a film about illusion, and is one of the few things that sets his movie apart from its would-be predecessor.
Note: Please forgive my earlier crack about middle-aged women. I gave in to a popular meme that's plagued Magic Mike from the second its poster debuted: that it's a cotton-weight bit of mansploitation targeted at lonely, horny women and gay men; straight dudes need not apply. That may have been the hook to get asses in seats, but Soderbergh, Carolin, and their great cast do everything they can to give audiences a spectacular show--one that's aimed at grown-ups for more reasons than just lewd dancing.
And yes, fellas, it's okay to see the male stripper movie. Magic Mike may turn you into a work-out enthusiast, but it sure as hell won't make you gay. If that's a genuine concern, perhaps you're better off skipping movies altogether and cracking open a book.
*In fairness to the bank, their turning Mike down might have had less to do with the fact that he's a stripper and more to do with his apparent lack of financial acumen. When Brooke asks him how much he's saved for his business, he boasts about a $13,000 haul over six years. Considering Mike's earlier remark to Adam about how earning two-hundred-forty tax-free dollars in a single night was "pretty good", I couldn't help but wonder where the hell the rest of his money went.
**The whole movie might be full of shit as far as the world of male exotic dancing goes, but Soderbergh and Carolin sell the hell out of their fantasy.