Steven Soderbergh’s latest, Magic Mike, echoes Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) in thematic concerns, certain plot points, and in a superficial manner (both films center around male sex workers). But this parallel works as both a boon and a hindrance to Magic Mike. It’s impossible (for me at least, who counts Anderson’s film as an all-time favorite) not to compare the two films. On one hand, Magic Mike is nowhere near the film that Boogie Nights is, and lacks the latter’s sheer scope. But on the other hand, the shared ideas and concerns actually help create a more layered and nuanced film if looked at in a certain light.
Not being quite as good as Boogie Nights isn’t the kiss of death, since Magic Mike can be quite wonderful and entertaining on occassion. The plot is simple, following our titular male stripper Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) who’s entering his 30s and sees stripping only as means to an end. When he meets people, he introduces himself as an entrepreneur (he does construction and runs an auto detailing gig on the side), but his real dream is to make custom furniture. Early on in the film, he takes a wayward, lazy youth named Adam — whom Mike dubs “The Kid” — under his wing, introducing him to the fast-paced world of male stripping, while at the same time attempting to woo Adam’s prudish sister (Cody Horn).
There’s not much else to the film as far as plot goes besides where it ends up, and, to many, the lack of plot makes it a movie for middle-aged women about nothing more titillating than beefy hunks in assless chaps. And while that appeal is still there, this is an honest, frank and often deep portrayal of both the sex industry and the people tangled up in it. Much like the characters in Boogie Nights — which depicted people searching for the American Dream by any means necessary — Mike, too, is using whatever talents he has to get ahead. But at the same time, he’s more than his good looks and wants the world to see him as more than a set of abs and a G-string. The film is at its sharpest early on when its heart, humanity and sense of humor are on display. It helps — and is a bit shocking, really — that Tatum has grown from a thick-necked bro into an amiable onscreen presence. The film, which is actually based on Tatum’s younger days as a stripper in Florida, can be read as a depiction of the actor’s early film career where he was seen as nothing more than a pretty face. That same connection can be made with Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights and his time as Marky Mark the rapper/underwear ingenue. It’s fitting that the Wahlberg vehicle Ted opened this week, since, with Magic Mike, he might’ve just passed the torch of “Hollywood’s most-likable-beefcake-actor” onto Tatum.
Soderbergh, who for a long time was known as a director with no discernible style, seems to have finally nailed down something akin to one. These days, he’s most concerned with character and composition, doing all the cinematography himself under his Peter Andrews pseudonym. He’s become an almost casual maker of art films, experimenting with color and angle while doing little on the overt side — stylistically at least — to frighten the horses. With the exception of a stiff performance by Cody Horn, he’s assembled a near-perfect cast, while brilliantly finding the role Matthew McConaughey was born to play: an aging, eccentric stripper named Dallas. The only thing keeping Magic Mike from flirting with greatness is a weak third act that unfortunately devolves into yet another tract on the dangers of drugs and money — but at the same time, this is the only place the movie can really go. This, however, isn’t enough to wreck the film, and shouldn’t dissuade you from seeing for it for yourself. Rated R for pervasive sexual content, brief graphic nudity, language and some drug use.