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Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012)

August 29, 2012

In a central scene of Magic Mike, Channing Tatum’s protagonist converses with a bank officer, wanting to be granted a small business loan. Mike not only strip-dances at a club called Xquisite but also co-owns the place and balances its books, and additionally manages two construction businesses. Now aged thirty, his dream is to start his own custom furniture company, and he has been waiting for the banks to offer competitive loans that he can use to get started. With all his operations dealing exclusively in cash, Mike finds his credit ratings undesirable to get his dream started.

The scene intriguingly begins with the female bank officer curiously jovial and excited in a nervous way, a demeanour that diminishes into uneasiness once Mike reveals his briefcase of saved-up cash and makes it clear that he really is there for a loan application. There is a suggestion that the officer perhaps recognises Mike from his Xquisite job, and possibly thought he had been hired to appear in her office by co-workers. Once the realisation of his real intentions hits, the employee is unable to respond to Mike’s hopeful discussions about his plans without a visible sense of unease; she finds it hard to find his ambitions plausible and to take him entirely seriously. Though the loan application is rejected due to Mike’s credit rating, the bank officer – with no intention to offend – suggests to him that they have programs for people in his situation who may be “in distress”.

Like Soderbergh’s less engaging The Girlfriend Experience, Magic Mike is very much concerned with the current economy, and that cited scene in particular highlights the barriers inherent in trying to navigate those large systems in an upward fashion, perhaps the defining theme of the film as a whole. Despite all his hard work and attempts to navigate multiple vocations and the economy, Mike finds himself hindered by his means of income and stigmas related to the means by which he lives. It is a compelling element inherent in many of Soderbergh’s recent films: the minute operations of businesses and the necessary navigation through large systems in order to survive, yet alone thrive. For all the appealing elements the increasingly popular Xquisite holds for Alex Pettyfer’s “The Kid”, and despite all of Mike’s apparent successes through lingering in this lifestyle, there is a constant reminder of the unglamorous work involved with the artifice of the titillating strip show.

Behind the elaborate routines, including a Donen/Kelly-like number that incorporates umbrellas as dance props and is shot like a musical sequence, there are gruelling physical routines and necessary tasks like having to re-sew thong hems. There’s additionally the relative lack of traditional film narrative glamour to the championed successes throughout. Fitting for the current economy, “great nights” for Xquisite’s employees are those where they simply manage to get a few twenty dollar bills thrown their way, while the big event for the business that changes everyone’s lives is a moving of their branch to a new location; in an amusing directorial choice, the party where the big move is celebrated occurs while a hurricane roars outside.

On a narrative level, Magic Mike offers nothing very new, deviating little from the familiar story of a young man’s rise and fall in a certain talent field, and its forays into darkness are not so extreme as in the likes of Boogie Nights and Saturday Night Fever. About the only notable oddity on a storytelling level is that although we have the gateway character new to the stripping world in the form of “The Kid”, the film generally chooses to instead focus on Mike’s veteran of the business, following his journey and observing the newcomer’s progress through his eyes. In a way, Soderbergh seems to relish in the familiarity of this story told throughout the medium’s history, and his own cinematography thrives on a type of lengthier take more common in American character dramas from earlier decades, specifically the 1970s. (If memory serves correctly, the film, like David Fincher’s Zodiac, even opens with an older incarnation of the Warner Bros. logo.)

One strong example is an amusement park sequence that follows, from a distance, Tatum’s Mike and Cody Horn’s Brooke walking and talking from a drinks stall to a bench, and continuing to converse there until Pettyfer’s Adam arrives. Adam enters the frame from an even further distance, making his way across a go-kart track in the background of the shot and venturing over fences to make his way to the bench. He then converses with Mike and sister Brooke before they all depart the location, and the shot finally ends after lasting for a few minutes. This confident, distant method allows the scene and performers to breathe, and the world of the film to feel more lived-in and less insular.

Furthermore regarding the cinematography, Soderbergh, bar a focus on blues in the Xquisite-set sequences, paints the film with an alternately pretty but filthy shade of appealing lemon yellow; the film shares much of its colour scheme with his previous effort Haywire, another electrifying work also conceived to revolve around a very specific performer. Tatum successfully portrays Mike as believably decent and hopelessly naive. He’s much smarter and more ambitious than his colleagues at the club, but he’s still not quite smart enough: he’s too clever to remain a stripper at age thirty, but he’s also a bit too self-deluded to act upon that despite the ways it’s actually hindering his ambitions.

To actually get ahead with his custom furniture plans, the stripping job really should just be a pit stop, but in a city that registers as a host to either easy conquests or soul-sucking service jobs, a prolonged presence at Xquisite comes across less like a compromise and more like a viable career path to keep pursuing. Pettyfer’s Adam sees it as a path to bursts of immediate pleasures, however brief, an understandably appealing concept for a nineteen-year-old. For the thirty-year-old Mike, who keeps the plastic wrapping on both his sofas and car dashboard, dwelling in the provisional becomes an increasingly frustrating dilemma.

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One comment

  1. Wonderful and insightful review. Having dabbled in screenwriting myself (more as a hobby and creative outlet to the grind of a corporate tech job), finding not only a well scripted film but a beautiful directed one is always a treat. Don’t get me wrong, the buns and beefcake were all eye candy but for me second to paying attention to the character arcs and plot points. Being a long time transplant to Tampa, it was fun to see so many familiar places (some rather close to my New Port Richey home) portrayed with a masterful eye to shot composition.



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