03 July 2012

Soderbergh’s ‘Magic Mike’

It’s raining movie stars.
Channing Tatum, center, flanked by Matt Bomer and Adam Rodriguez, with Joe Manganiello in the background at right.

Let it be said at the outset that my career as a go-go boy is never going to make much of a major motion picture. I was 39, I did it for one night, and I made three dollars. My principal life lesson was that it is very hard to dance on top of a bar when you wear trifocal lenses, harder still when you’ve had a couple of beers already. I’m glad I had the experience, but I don’t need to do it again. I do, however, advise you that I speak here with a certain degree of insider knowledge.

The great surprise of Steven Soderbergh’s new movie, is not perhaps that its plot depends so heavily on clichés we’ve seen overworked in other movies about strippers — not just female strippers but male strippers, too. Indeed, Magic Mike’s obvious, uncredited precedent and possible inspiration is the immortal made-for-TV epic, For Ladies Only, starring Gregory Harrison, from all the way back in 1981.*

No, the great surprise is that the movie ostensibly reflects the real-life but brief (and I use that term advisedly) stripping career of Soderbergh’s star and co-producer, Channing Tatum. So what they’re saying is that the reality turns out to be exactly what we’d expect?

Harrison in For Ladies Only.
His character danced a Zorro-themed routine,
which explains the mark on his outfit.
Not that I think you were looking there.

Not exactly. In an interview with the A.V. Club, Tatum has admitted that, at a certain point, he and the screenwriter, Reid Carolin, gave up on accuracy and went for make-believe:
“Nothing in the movie is accurate. It’s not my biopic or anything. [Laughs.] But it’s just sort of the world I experienced. The only thing that’s factual is that I was an 18-year-old kid, and I had a sister, and I dropped out of college, and that’s it. But other than that, I would just tell him stories and we’d be like, ‘All right, well, what if this happened?’ And we just kind of made the whole thing up. [Laughs.] Because the reality was so bizarre that I don’t think you’d even believe it.”
Trouble is, make-believe doesn’t always equal imagination. The screenplay’s predictability may help to explain why the director is so little interested in the plot. Exposition is dispensed in throwaway lines, developments are telegraphed, episodes distilled. Example: Adam (Alex Pettyfer) gets some drugs, Adam loses the drugs, Adam has a drug overdose, someone will have to pay for the drugs: ticking off a list as quickly as possible in order to move on to something more interesting.

And what really interests Soderbergh here, I suspect, isn’t the story or even the character relationships but the ambiance. He lavishes his greatest care on the dance numbers, which are almost certain to be the principal attraction for moviegoers, as well.

“We are now living in a world where Matthew McConaughey
is interesting.”
-- New York Magazine.

Soderbergh takes us to Xquisite, the Tampa strip club owned by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), himself a dancer, where a harem of five men bump and grind in rigorously choreographed routines for the pleasure of bachelorette parties and of women looking for no-strings-but-G-strings good times. You may expect the club to be squalid or luxurious, but it’s neither; instead, it’s the sort of place women might visit without anxiety. And in every scene, the all-female audience can’t contain its delight in the service of attentions of the squirming hunks — making you wonder what they’re not getting at home.

The venue may be borderline, but it’s show business nevertheless, with props and costumes, and the guys take it seriously, training and rehearsing and “working on a new routine” like professional dancers in a modern troupe.

Channing Tatum has in fact made dance movies, Step Up and its sequel, and he’s truly dazzling here, with a fluidity you don’t expect in a guy so muscle-bound and real electricity you don’t expect in an actor so restrained and a character so meat-headed. While they’re not given anything quite so elaborate as the numbers lavished on the top-billed star, Tatum’s co-stars also offer some smooth moves.

Little Red Riding Hood meets the Big Bad Wolf: Pettyfer and Tatum.

I was struck by Adam Rodriguez, whom I admired in Ugly Betty; his performance here suggests that the grace he brought to the role of Hilda’s fiancé may derive from dance. Like most of his cast-mates here, Rodriguez is given almost nothing to do but dance, and I found myself wishing yet again that somebody would hire him for an old-fashioned romantic comedy — with a couple of dance numbers.

Of course, new-fashioned romantic comedies have been Matthew McConaughey’s stock in trade for several years, and by common consensus they’re terribly disappointing. Here he’s sleek and insinuating, a trickster god among the defenseless innocents, and he makes you resent all the lazy, mediocre movies he’s made. At long last McConaughey puts his bongo-playing skills to good use, and he accompanies himself on guitar in a refreshingly unaffected song, too. Is it too soon to start talking about a remake of Chicago? McConaughey would make a definitive Billy Flynn.

It’s hard to tell how much of Adam’s blank-faced stupor is the character’s cluelessness and how much is Alex Pettyfer’s limited acting ability. Certainly Adam doesn’t know what he wants, and it’s in him I find most of the movie’s (surprisingly very, very few) intimations of homoerotic desire, which Dallas exploits and which lands Adam in a talked-about sexual interlude with another dancer (Matt Bomer), his wife, and another woman. Confused though it may be, even “the Kid’s” response to his mentor, Mike, has undercurrents: “I think we should be best friends,” Adam says, shortly after they dance for the first time.

Making it on talent alone? Horn, with Tatum.

The movie’s other leading role is that of Adam’s sister, Brooke, a nurse who’s played with an appealing lack of Hollywood glamour by Cody Horn. The natural shape of her mouth suggests constant exasperation, which works for the character’s ongoing disapproval of her brother’s spiraling drift — but unfortunately, that’s about all Horn has to bring to the part, and most other scenes find her technically unable to do her job. Be it noted that her father is Alan F. Horn, the President and Chief Operating Officer of the studio that produced this picture, Warner Bros.

More successful is Olivia Munn, as the bad-girl brunette who participates enthusiastically in Mike’s debauches; sadly, she disappears for great chunks of the picture. Like Adam Rodriguez, True Blood star Joe Manganiello scarcely has any lines, yet he manages to make a memorable impression, both in his dancing and in Soderbergh’s clever use of prosthetics and silhouette. Matt Bomer’s impossible beauty once again becomes a source of comedy (as it was on Glee) when he incarnates a Ken doll in one of his dance routines.

Soderbergh is credited with the cinematography here, and it’s striking that all the scenes outside the Xquisite club are washed-out and yellowed, like snapshots left out in the sun; we barely see the color blue at all except in dance numbers. The contrast isn’t quite Kansas/Oz, but close. Is this coincidence or, as I say, an indication of Soderbergh’s true interest? In more ways than one, the real color in the movie lies exclusively in the dancing.**

We’re your dreeeeeam girrrrrrrls!

*NOTE: Not a bad little movie, actually, For Ladies Only is perhaps most widely remembered for a co-starring role played by the then-President’s daughter, Patti Davis.

**Perhaps it stands to reason, then, that there’s talk already of Magic Mike: The Broadway Musical.

1 comment:

Jean Brazil said...

One of my few marginal claims to fame is that my older sister worked for many years as the administrative coordinator (ie. the secretary that kept the arty professors in line) at the esteemed University of Texas film school. As part of her job, she came in contact with many Hollywood biggies including Matthew. By her account, he was a first class jerk who had to be repeatedly told to put out his cigars because U.T. does not allow smoking on campus, especially around the editing equipment. He was a grad student at the time, who later went on to make it big. For this reason, I try to avoid his films whenever possible. You don't ignore my big sister!