Monday, July 2, 2012

Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012)

In retrospect, the links between Steven Soderbergh's male stripper movie Magic Mike and The Girlfriend Experience, his 2009 experiment starring a porn star as a high-end prostitute, should have been obvious. Both, in true Soderbergh fashion, explore their unorthodox sex-centric milieux, the director's older film about how the commodification of woman's sexuality, this new one about that of man's. If one plays out as a probing drama and the other a wry comedy, that only speaks to how society perceives the sexuality of the sexes and what is considered a lamentable, if common, situation for one gender and an escapist dream for the other.

Yet Magic Mike, for its many laughs, has as much to say about current economic realities as Soderbergh's Sasha Grey vehicle, which was made in the thick of Wall Street collapse and reflects that panic. Where that film captured a moment, this one exists in the aftermath of a radically shaken-up world. As the titular stud, Channing Tatum represents the post-collapse reality, that of a Millennial with ambitious but ridiculous dreams who must constantly defer his goal with various odd jobs to pay the bills. Working construction or stripping may not be a series of unpaid internships, but their purpose is the same: to offer an increasingly slim hope for a shot at the American Dream.

Soderbergh and screenwriter Reid Carolin present Mike's situation as a combination of factors within and outside his control. An early scene shows him working as a roof tiler for a construction company that hires people on Craigslist to skirt union workers and keep wages almost criminally low. Not only that, a supervisor accuses one man of theft for taking two Pepsis for lunch, when the daily allotment is one. And when Mike takes a hefty cash down payment to a bank to get a loan for his dream business, a custom furniture maker that turns salvage into tables, only to be turned down because he has no credit. "I read the newspapers," he says evenly but angrily at the bank assistant who weakly protests his assets, "and the only thing that's depressed is y'all." The recession is not the only thing holding Mike back, however: as hard as he works to save up for his business, he also rewards himself lavishly. He lives in a two-story apartment and drives a new truck that still sports the plastic on the interior, albeit only because Mike thinks this preserves the element of newness. Mike spends so much that after six years of working multiple jobs, he only has about $13,000 saved up.

But as much as Mike's life speaks to the realities of the recession, created and perpetuated by both personal and social irresponsibility and greed, Magic Mike, like any other Soderbergh movie, cares more for the process of its subject matter than the themes it inspires. The aforementioned Pepsi "thief," Adam (Alex Pettyfer), gives the audience an entry point into the male stripping world when he finds himself literally thrust on-stage after a particularly odd day. As Adam, a.k.a. "The Kid," settles into this new realm, he receives instruction not only from Mike but from Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, the egomaniacal impresario of the strip club where all the banana hammock-swinging action takes place. McConaughey's coaching is deliberately absurd, but in his macho pep talk and narcissistic grinding in a mirror is a clarification of the rules and practices of this profession.

In The Girlfriend Experience, Grey's Chelsea/Christine touts the in-depth experience she offers clients, but outside of the scenes in which we see her in some state of undress, all she really has to do is hold a conversation and be a comforting shoulder. Such is the extent of the straight man's idea of a girlfriend: a woman just smart enough to agree with him and nonjudgmental enough to let him cry before or after (or while?) he mounts her. Mike and the other strippers, on the other hand, engage in an openly simplistic act, but one that, according to Dallas, allows the customers to project their wildest, most intricate erotic fantasies. In stereotypical sailor/cowboy/cop outfits are unexpectedly complex turn-ons, especially when married to genuine, occasionally thrilling dance choreography. With a handful of dialogue, the characters suggest a profession that inverts the ostensible complexity and banal reality of The Girlfriend Experience into an elaborate, (mostly) contact-free erogenous feat that brings out the depths of the mind's lascivious imagination.

Not to be left out, Soderbergh's impeccable, always unexpected framing likewise establishes this world. He places ample space between a shot's focal character(s) and everyone else, emphasizing the barrier and pedestal that separates the performers from the screaming, clapping women who come to see them, as well as how that barrier is deliberately bent and redrawn as part of the performance. And among Soderbergh's talents for reflecting and subverting genre behavior, one can now add dance to the list of things the director can shoot competently and originally, alongside martial arts, heists and extended monologues. By now it is common knowledge that the film is loosely based on Tatum's own experiences as a stripper, and Soderbergh lets the actor show off the moves he retained. The film makes clear that the choreography of each strip routine is essential to the overall effect on the customer, so the director allows the audience to actually see it. Even when he cuts around the dances—or ends before a sword leaves its sheath and slaps the film with an NC-17 rating—Soderbergh keeps the sequences clear and judiciously edited and framed.

Then there are simply the shots that impress so much I cannot let them pass without comment. Ever since the metatextual confessional style of his debut Sex, lies & videotape, Soderbergh has found new and interesting way to frame faces, and he delights in off-kilter framings here. When Mike lures a gaggle of young women and Adam to his strip club near the start, Soderbergh frames all their faces in a tiny patch of space in the lower-left foreground and leaves the rest of the ample, 2:35:1 frame open, if in shallow focus, to show bar patrons dancing in blurs behind them. The first time we see Mike drive, Soderbergh leaves the camera outside the truck's rear pointing forward, leaving a chunk of the vehicle in the frame as it peers around front; I honestly do not think I've ever seen a driving scene shot like this. Even the use of title cards for each month is inspired, employed as they are in a manner reminiscent to Éric Rohmer's use of date cards as their own fleet, wry punchlines.

So effective and clever are his cutaways to those cards that I did not immediately correlate them to actual time passing. If Magic Mike shares anything with Soderbergh's Contagion (other than that sickly yellow filter that appears to be his new default color tone), it is in the display of how quickly everything can spiral out of control. The saga of two strippers may operate on a smaller scale than that of a global pandemic, but the basic principle remains the same. Even so, it's undeniable that Magic Mike's weakest element is its over-familiar plot, with shades of Boogie Nights and every other showbiz fable about a rising and falling star, complete with reversals of the ascendant and declining performer. It is amusing that a film that belatedly spoofs the unimaginative male perception of women in The Girlfriend Experience should itself saddle its two most prominent women, Adam's sister/Mike's love interest Brooke (Cody Horn) and Mike's friend-with-benefits Joanna (Olivia Munn), with the most undercooked roles. Still more amusing that both nearly steal the film. Munn gives a surprisingly touching performance with her chunks of mostly jokey screentime, a woman who simultaneously finds escape with Mike and is reminded of how quickly she needs to grow up whenever she's with him. Horn plays the opposite role, that of the serious-minded sister who maintains her maturity but also warms to Mike as the film progresses. Horn pulls off the rare effect of loosening up to the immature, hunky protagonist without completely unraveling for him.

Nevertheless, Pettyfer and especially Tatum sell this tired story with conviction, and Tatum proves yet again he can carry a comedy. Witty in his debonair fast-talking and endearingly ridiculous when his façade fails and he falls into stammering clumsiness, Tatum even manages to recall, if only vaguely, Cary Grant's ability to be the epitome of put-together manliness and a total wreck at the same time. That I see even a homeopathic amount of Grant in Tatum would be bewildering to myself only a year ago, but complete with his textured bit part in Soderbergh's other 2012 feature Haywire, and his physically comic work in 21 Jump Street, Tatum is on a roll. And speaking of rolls, McConaughey may be entering the best phase of his career. Of all the immaculately and uniquely framed faces in the film, none is more frequently hysterical than McConaughey's. He so effortlessly embodies Dallas' creepy, pathetic self-absorption that a shot of a marble bust modeled after his own head is less a sight gag than a logical ornament in his home. But as silly as McConaughey is, he also imbibes the spirit of the corrupt business leader, building everything on the backs of his workers and then kicking out some of the rungs of the social ladder to ensure none can approach his position. This is simultaneously one of the actor's funniest, and darkest, performances to date.

Who could have expected to see so much of contemporary society and American youth in Magic Mike? Any undergrad or fresh graduate will know all too well Brooke's marketer boyfriend (screenwriter Carolin), the sort of person with whom one comes into contact when looking for some work, any work, outside a preferred career path. There are many, many good, personable, helpful people in sales, but anyone who has fished those waters will have met at least one Paul, a young, privileged man who established himself in a bum economy and has let that feed his ego. Unable to talk about anything but business and money, Paul condescends to everyone and treats his uninspiring work not as a means of personal satisfaction with a job well done but as a mere sign of status. The scene in which Paul, Adam and Brooke have drinks lasts no more than a minute or two, but an entire way of life is captured in seconds. Elsewhere, Magic Mike offers an indirect but crystalline snapshot of the state healthcare and emergency costs, where all one's savings can disappear in a flash with one freak occurrence. Funny, gorgeously shot and a vicarious thrill for most of its audience, Magic Mike is nevertheless the finest summary of Generation Y yet produced. Not bad for a film with a protracted penis pump sight gag.

1 comment:

  1. I've been reading mixed reviews of this movie, and I enjoyed reading your analysis. It sounds like they revived a somewhat overdone plot with contemporary social commentary.