Magic Mike: in response to Lisa Mullen

04 August 2012

Last week, I belatedly caught Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh's third release of the year. Even more belatedly, I'd like to say some things about the film and offer a response to Lisa Mullen's review of it in the August issue of Sight & Sound.

In contemporary Tampa Bay, Florida, 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer) is out of work and sleeping on his sister Brooke's sofa. (Brooke is played by Cody Horn; Mullen's review incorrectly refers to Adam's sister as Zora - not Nora, who's another character altogether - and incorrectly credits Riley Keough in the role.) Repelled one night by the middle-income dinner-table pretensions of Brooke's boyfriend, Adam wanders into the night in pursuit of thrills. Not dressed for the occasion, he appeals to thirty-something Mike (Channing Tatum), a roof tiler who he met on a construction site earlier that day, to get him into a nightclub. Inside, Mike scouts two girls as potential audience members for the male strip show he's a part of, and invites Adam along. Surprised to discover Mike's means of income, Adam nevertheless commits to the ride and ends up enjoying himself. Advised by strip-club owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), he improves his own strip routine and enjoys the benefits of the quick buck; Brooke disapproves.

Mike, meanwhile, between no-strings sex with Joanna (Olivia Munn), wants out. Though the main attraction of Dallas's show, he dreams of earning a living from custom-made furniture. Despite his best efforts to charm his way into setting up a business, a bad credit rating prevents him from attaining his entrepreneurial goals. Falling for Brooke, he promises her he'll look after Adam; when the latter becomes involved in drugs, however, things spiral beyond Mike's control.

I liked the film a great deal. It boasts complex performances from Tatum and Pettyfer, who effectively play off their own personas with naturalistic banter - sometimes awkward, sometimes very funny, and often palpably vulnerable beneath a barely upheld confidence. Watching over them as a kind of father figure-cum-vague menace, McConaughey gives the film a wealth of experience and energy. From the opening scene onwards - a solo intro from McConaughey that recalls Tom Cruise in Magnolia ("respect the cock! tame the cunt!") - Magic Mike has an enthralling narrative spirit that stems, I think, from the tension between on one hand, a marketable, flesh-heavy cast and a story revolving around shirtless alpha males, and on another, a confrontational edge that seems to want to undercut its own marketing methods. Like its band of strippers, the film gets girls' bums on seats in order to then dupe them into paying for the idea of enjoyment and fun, when in fact something deeply depressing and hollow is at work for both parties. As such, I took it to be another intelligent film by Soderbergh, that inexhaustible experimentalist who frames and colours beautifully and edits with such flair that a simple mid-scene cut to an intertitle denoting what month it is (June-July-August is the film's timescale) becomes exciting.

According to her Sight & Sound review of the film, however, Lisa Mullen sees Magic Mike as a "comic contribution to [the] well-trodden genre" of sex-industry titillating morality tale, unlike darker entries (her chosen term is "thoughtful meditations on exploitation") such as Boogie Nights (1997) and Wonderland (2003) - and even Showgirls (1995), which goes unmentioned by Mullen. Unlike those films, Mullen claims, Magic Mike is more interested in "strippers having a really smashing time, and on that level it's a likeable exercise in don't-take-yourself-so-seriously". Yes and no: yes, this film has a "lighter" touch and a likeability - it's not got Boogie Nights' portent or Showgirls' camp pomp - but no, I think its exercise is in how far you can take a specifically marketed mainstream film and work some kind of counter-current into it. It's certainly taking itself seriously. At a stretch, I might say the film is a d├ętournement, firstly of Tatum's usual material, subtly employing the actor against his own self-image, and secondly of - for instance - Paul Thomas Anderson's male-oriented self-seriousness.

I've mentioned here and here that when writing your own synopsis of a film, your tone and wording can double as a criticism or a dismissal. It's not difficult to do, and can be an effective way of letting a film's ridiculous premise speak for itself - even if your own, briefer narrative is necessarily far removed from the film's own. (To think of the wide range of narratives available for a synopsis, compare two different, politically opposed newspapers' headlines when covering the same event.) Mullen does this when she intrudes upon her own observations of the film with an unpunctuated brand of snark: Brooke, Mullen notes, finds Mike "quite nice, quite responsible and sensitive and oh look he's taken off his clothes again, wow, great six-pack." Is this meant to be Mullen putting herself in Brooke's shoes, or second-guessing the film's makers' intentions, or is it a comment on her own distraction while trying to collect her thoughts as a critic?

Mullen continues: "Let's face it, 'oh look he's taken off his clothes again' is the default setting here, a fact that tends to emphasise the film's featherlight, episodic nature, and is disappointing from a director whose films are usually masterclasses in narrative momentum." I won't deny the film is episodic; my point of contention is the pejorative tone implied by the term. Surely the momentum Soderbergh's films carry is interesting and worth analysing (not here) precisely because they're so episodic: I'll put forward sex, lies and videotape (1989), Traffic (2000) and Solaris (2002) as three picks at random. His finest work, meanwhile, Che parts one and two, is a four-hour lesson in episodic storytelling. To me, "episodic" is an adjective not a value-judgement, a neutral observation far from being inherently detrimental or interesting.

Mullen ends her review, after acknowledging some positives, by suggesting that it might leave you "wondering why, if you wanted to get drunk and see a sex show, you're actually sitting in a cinema, stone cold sober." Eh? That's not a criticism, is it? Or if it is, it's one that's applicable to just about any scenario in any film - or work of art in general. But this gets to the crux of my own interpretation of the film: it promotes the idea of getting drunk and seeing a sex show, and is at the same time a sobering undoing of that promotion. That might be a common trait of any morality tale, of course - in Hollywood or otherwise - but I saw enough in Magic Mike to make it relatable, notably its recurrent references to class society.

Adam might be deemed a lout to begin with, but his reluctance to seek work is contextualised by a distrust of authority figures and workplace hierarchies; he is a sensitive and funny lad who is understandably pissed off by his sister's boyfriend and the social tensions he perpetuates. Mike, meanwhile, is well aware of the snobberies and prejudices that define the marketplace he wishes to enter: he tries in vain to straighten out and clean up the dollar bills that get shoved into his G-string every night, and he knows he's got to don specs and a suit in order to have any chance of performing his way into a set-up loan for his business. Even considering the minor quibbles of a clich├ęd third act and a sentimental ending, Soderbergh's film is a careful consideration of a few guys' attempts to get off the bottom rung in a system infinitely hostile to such endeavours.