The only thing gay about it is if you like it too much!

Of course I was going to see Magic Mike. Steven Soderbergh is interesting even when he shits the bed. Thankfully, Magic Mike is not that film. And yes, it’s a real-deal bona fide film. This isn’t Burlesque for dudes (and no I never saw that movie). It’s more like the Goodfellas of male stripper movies. Cuz there are so many of those. That may seem like high praise but I’m not trying to say that this is as seminal as Goodfellas, just that it’s closer to that in terms of style and tone than it is some cheesy story of discovered talent and subsequent rise and fall of the talented. The only thing cheesy about Magic Mike is the name. Yes you’ll see more chaps’ asses and assless chaps than you perhaps bargained for, but it is about male strippers after all.

And that’s the surface draw of the movie, which will make tons of money off the voyeurism of women tickled by the concept. And why not? The only thing bad about that is there’s no way as many men see this as should do. Because the real draw is everything in the package, including the fucking male strippers. It’s filled with great performances from great actors, even one or two surprises (two if you haven’t already seen 21 Jump Street). It’s artfully directed, the story is the center and not the stripping, and the naturalistic dialogue is refreshing and keeps the whole thing feeling real and grounded. Like I said, it’s a bona fide film. Just happens to be dealing with a subject that 90% of frightened, latently homophobic lads are going to struggle with reconciling themselves to. Which is too bad cuz they’re missing out.

I can totally understand why chicks love this guy.

Channing Tatum continues his “oh what, this guy is legit?” shred through the movies as Mike, a six year veteran of the little stripclub that could. Along with a group of other guys, mostly over 30, he tries to bring a blue collar showmanship to what most people think of as pure gratuity. There’s no pausing to ruminate on the inherently artistic nature of the routines these guys do. Instead this concept is fed through the hurricane of personality that is Dallas, played to perfection by Matthew McConaughey in what must be his most fun, grandiose performance to date. Dallas steals half the movie, with the other half anchored and sailing on Tatum’s shoulders.

Mike’s deal shifts suddenly when he meets a young scampy guy on one of his many side jobs. Adam (Alex Pettyfer, also making good) is a 19 year old with too much dumb and not enough prospects. Mike takes him under his wing, almost by accident, and introduces him (and us) to his little world. Mike’s the kind of guy who’s always on his way to something else, but unlike the familiar characters (and real people: you definitely know a few) who say that but stick to the same shit year after year, Mike never seems to stop having things going on. He’s a smart guy who likes partying and attention just a bit too much. He’s on the cusp of growing up just a tad and while the economy is holding him back a bit, he’s one attitude adjustment away from moving on. This film is pretty much the story of how he reaches that point, largely through the realization that Adam is just him as he was a few years ago and all the other guys are him in a few more years unless he gets out.

McConaughey delivers the bananas.

One of the most refreshing things about the movie is how closely it flirts with cliche. Every time you think they’re going to delve into some overused subplot, it dodges away as if to say “you know that story, so there it is and let’s move on”. This is particularly noticeable with much of Adam’s story. This is because the movie isn’t really about Adam, it’s about Mike. So when Adam meets Nora, the obviously troublesome waif type, all we need is Mike saying “you don’t want that in your life” and we already know the story. We don’t need to see Adam and Nora going Sid and Nancy. This sort of confidence is almost ineffable. It’s hard to decide when a movie is coasting on cliche to skip to more “cinematic” stuff and when it’s a director/writer just trusting the audience and choosing how and where to tell a story. Sometimes I hate it when filmmakers don’t “show their work” precisely because it’s derived from a lack of trust in the audience or a false sense of confidence in the strength of a story. Soderbergh makes this shit look easy, though, which is why he’s one of the masters.

Another element of note is the dialogue. A lot of credit goes to the actors on this, but most of the dialogue is performed like real people talking. The stuttering, the awkward pauses, and even the flirting feel just enough closer to how real people talk that you bother noticing it. Left in the hands of actors you’re used to seeing in far more contrived situations, with far less grounded things to say in them, it becomes something of a minor revelation.

Perhaps more than his custom furniture business, Mike is looking for a little genuine human connection.

The one weak link in the cast is Cody Horn. I guess she got the job because she’s the daughter of the President and COO of the fucking WB studio. Yeah, could be that. Anyway, she’s basically a charisma black hole. She’s cursed with one of those faces that always looks like she’s just eaten shit. Her smile doesn’t improve much. I’m not saying she’s ugly, either. Who am I to say that? It’s just that the character never feels vital and Horn never infuses her with any visual personality or emoting. She makes Kristen Stewart’s more wooden performances look good. She’s got that same distance, that same static approach to dialogue. Soderbergh somewhat makes it work by pairing her with Tatum who really dials up the charm to 11 in 90% of the movie. When he makes her laugh, it feels like Horn is breaking character or something. Like it’s one of those outtakes or between-takes moments you see on the DVD. That is some smart directing right there, though Soderbergh is known for working with non-actors (and bad actors) and finding something resembling a performance. Sometimes it’s genius, and it every now and then feels that way with Horn. Just not often enough to justify Mike’s attraction to her.

I guess there’s a sort of psychological thing. Brooke, Horn’s character, is the big sister through and through but Adam is sort of beyond the care and attention she offers. He’s too young to give a shit, but Mike is not. Mike needs that in his life, someone who’s going to call him on his bullshit and stop his charmslaught in its tracks. For all that Cody Horn is as exciting as curling, some of her no doubt herculean acting efforts do work for the character. So weak indeed, but not the end of the world.

Mike is the something special that Dallas needs, that Adam is said to be a version of, and he proves it.

Mike is a great character, especially for Tatum. He’s not some empty charmer who needs a good stern talking to from a woman he’d kinda like to bang to set him straight. He’s smart and he has major talent, and maybe it’s more in dancing than in furniture. The film acknowledges all of this. It’s chock full of dance routines, all of which are inventive and entertaining, but the stand out is the moment where Mike proves himself. He’s a known quantity by now, so this proving is about the audience and about who Mike is. It’s not about proving anything to Dallas, because they both already know. It’s about showing us, even though we’ve already seen that Mike is a great dancer and the heart of the team, because we’ve been invested in this character the whole movie. Mike isn’t a diva, but he’s aware of himself on the level of his talent. This makes him more likable, and more tolerable, than the usual insecure centerstage character. It’s also about a choice. Mike could keep being the best Dallas has, if not the best Tampa has, if he wants to. That’s what his final number shows.

In the end, though, he doesn’t want that. And this isn’t about judgment. Mike isn’t casting judgment on the lifestyle he has enjoyed. He’s just over it. The movie is very non-judgmental toward its story and characters. Even Brooke, who is usually the voice of reason and restraint, isn’t all that judgmental about it. This isn’t a movie about the evils of hard drugs, too much booze, or fast women. It’s about who we are vs. who we want to be. I think there’s something resonant about that for people in their 20’s and probably early 30’s. Especially these days of the 25 year old adolescent. There’s a lot of Mikes out there, stuck somewhere even if they don’t know it (probably because they somewhat enjoy it) who probably want more. The question isn’t whether the more is inherently valuable, but whether we have the guts to get it if we truly want it. It’s a fine message and an adult message.

But if you don’t like themes and stories, there’s always Dallas and his geetar.

Above all, Magic Mike is a fun movie. It’s also a fun movie that doesn’t compromise having a good story or good characters. It sacrifices nothing on the alter of entertainment, much less dollar bills. It’s about a good story well told. You can’t say that the latest superhero movie, or the big fantasy action McEpic just “is what it is”. Not when your male stripper movie over here does a better job of entertainment while also maintaining something like storytelling. You could tell basically the same story in any setting and it would work. It’s like I was saying about Pixar: it’s about getting to core emotional truths using methods that resonate in intelligible, quantifiable ways.

I’m not really surprised that Magic Mike is another unlikely great movie in 2012. There’s been a pile of them already. I’m not surprised at all, given the talent involved. But you might be. If you’re reading this being all like “haha what a fag talking about that fag movie for fags” you should punch yourself in the face and then go see this fucking movie.