Saturday, July 4, 2015

There's the beef, part I: It's an unbeatable market force


Fine backstage melodrama and phenomenal dance sequences, all set to a restless and ruthless economic elegy (as well as, occasionally, Ginuwine's "Pony").

Directed by Steven Soderbegh
Written by Reid Carolin
With Channing Tatum ("Magic" Mike Lane), Alex Pettyfer (Adam, "The Kid"), Mike Manganiello (Big Dick Richie), Matt Bomer (Ken), Adam Rodriguez (Tito), Kevin Nash (Tarzan), Gabriel Iglesias (Tobias), Cody Horn (Brooke), Olivia Munn (Joanna), Jada Pinkett Smith (Rome), and Matthew McConaughey (Dallas)

Spoiler alert: high

Three years ago, Steven Soderbergh made a movie about male strippers starring a former male stripper called Magic Mike, just as his career-long experiment in sideways populism neared its apex.  This is probably how despite a certain sneering superiority toward its demographic, it became a hit anyway, andsince this doesn't necessarily followalso deserved to be.

The irony's there to see: the whole exercise of Mike is a contrast, between the giggling women who have come to a safe place to objectify a select group of vetted men,  and the grinding workaday oblivion of the actual strippers who labor there.  But it's not a patent contempt, and can thereby be safely and entirely ignored.  Mike is thus made the polar opposite of Soderbergh's 2009 film about a high-end prostitute, The Girlfriend Experience, which was about the contrast between the audience for films starring Sasha Grey and the audience for the actual film Soderbergh made (that is, "nobody whatsoever").  While the two naturally share a themethe commodification of sexuality, particularly in our post-apocalyptic economyMike thankfully shares nothing else with Soderbergh's anti-populist artcrap nadir, other than some dubious if never-exactly-bad cinematography, and nudity.  In fact, Mike features significantly more, and significantly better, nudity.  Mike doesn't hate you for having genitals.  Nor does it appear to be made by and for aliens with significantly sharper hearing and (quite possibly) a different conception of sexuality as well as of the very flow of time itself.  Nope, Mike just wants you to understand a few things.  To be aware of the rules, so to speak.

Mike's chief concern is what it's like in America after the fall.  To this end, it takes as its setting a strip club in Tampa, surveyed over the course of one fateful summer.  Upon this stage, it tells a tale that's as old as time: that of the established professional who takes the newbie under his wing, only for one of them to find out that the other is a monster.  The professional is "Magic" Mike Lane, headliner at Xquisite, a mid-level strip club, whose dancing superpowers have put every other stripper in Tampa to shame.  The newbie is Adam, known onstage and off as "The Kid," who trades not upon hard work but youth and innate beauty, thereby marked out clearly as the monster of Reid Carolin's antique generic scenario.  Like Nomi Malone before him, Adam discovers that the skin industry is toxic, and that the combination of easy money, copious drugs, emotionless promiscuity, and the immaturity of the talent involved is a recipe for, at the very best, a kind of spiritual stasisand, at worst, outright moral collapse.

But this isn't really the story of The Kid.  Adam exists primarily for functional reasons: to receive exposition about what might be an unfamilar milieu; to offer himself as a symbol of its decadence; and, in terms of the plot, to upset Mike's own stasis, by introducing him not only to a bit of professional competition, but to his hot (yet skeptical) sister.  Our hero, it turns out, is titular.

You're mispronouncing it.

Mike is only a stripper by circumstance.  In fact he's a great many other thingsa roofer of houses, a detailer of cars, and by his own description an "entrepreneur."  In a perfect world, he would be the maker of customized furniture.  It is not mentioned often enough in reviews how eye-rollingly lame this ambition is, given the furniture he's built that we get to see; but Mike is nevertheless hardworking and smart enough that it's immediately clear that in an even slightly-more-functional world, he would already be out of the stripping game and be moving on with a very different life.  Instead, there's a real threat that he may be stuck at Xquisite foreveror, more gloomily, till he's too old to dance, at which point he'll be good for nothing at all.  Mike's boss, Dallas, dangles the promise of equity ("E-Q-U-I-T-Y") in front of him, but Dallas exploits himand discards him as need benot out of any mean sense of class hatred, but only to keep his own dreams alive.

In other words, stripping becomes the literalization of one of the great terrors of the 21st century: that the economic choices we make at the very cusp of adulthood will follow us forever, leaving us used-up credit risks who can't change even when we direly need to, building into us an obsolescence that will seep in decades before our bodies actually die.  What becomes of us then is hard to say.  In the best case scenario, we obtain a bit of capital of our own, and become Dallasthat is, obligated to step on our friends to keep what's ours, and still facing the exact same uncertainties, just with a little more breathing room.

You know what I love about Matthew McConaughey?  I keep getting older, and he still looks great.  Sorry.  I meant "what I hate."

But metaphor or no metaphor, in Mike, stripping is also stripping, and this is key.  It dives headlong into that world with enthusiasm.  Indeed, one of the film's pleasures is how low-key its investigation into Tampa stripperdom turns out to be.  Mike almost always underplays its sleaze to elicit a laugh, or sometimes a more tender emotion, rather than pitching it up for gaudy underworld horror.  (Even its vicious drug dealers seem reasonable.)  It arrives at a very happy medium, then, presenting Mike Lane's corner of America with a kind of hollow chintziness that, it must be said, has real surface appealTampa is a never-ending neon-lit orgy that (let's be honest) you'd really like to be a part of, but only on the condition that you aren't stuck there forever.  That's the fate of most of the strippers in Mike; that's its tragedy.

Meanwhile, in the moment, it is very appealing.  If you came to Mike for sexy strip shows, you will find them; the beauty of it is that they operate on more than just this single level.  Now, lazy displays of flesh can still be exorbitantly steamy, but Mike doesn't slack off, even though it probably could.

For routines at a middling strip club, Mike's dance numbers are just shockingly well-conceivedwhy, so shockingly well-conceived, it's like they're out of a Goddamned movie or something.  I'm not equipped with the proper orientation to tell you if you should masturbate to Magic Mike, but I can't imagine that you could not. It is, I dare to say, objectively hot.  Those who have surmised that the strip scenes are too clinical to be arousing are, I think, imposing the thematic thruline upon them, even though there's no real call to do so; they exist nearly independently of the film's deeper concerns.  I suppose this is what happens when most critics are raised on depressing European sex dramas.  I was raised on hardcore pornography.  Thus I see the absolute best in the feats of mechanical prowess Tatum and company get up to.  (And there is a significant amount of unsung female nudity and near-nudity in this flick, a contingency I did not expect but can't say I was the least bit stung by.)

One of the classic functions of art is to ennoble the human spirit; and if it shames one man into doing sit-ups, then Magic Mike must be art.

Every routineother than one that's supposed to be amateurish and terribleis immaculately choregraphed and impressively designed.  Ken's living doll, although seen only for a moment, is a particularly good one.  Tatum's moves betray his top-flight dancing abilities in the best possible way, turning the stage at Dallas' nudie bar into the setting of a glorious athletic exhibition.  (Clearly, I need to catch up with Step Up.)  And if these sequences aren't shot and edited to their maximum effect, permitting Tatum's essential superhumanity to shine unobscured, then Soderbergh's name isn't Peter Andrews or Mary Ann Bernard.

So even the straight guy who appreciates things that look cool can enjoy the hell out of Mike's man-meat spectacles, and be thankful for the well-placed exclamation points they put upon Mike's otherwise quiet tone; the non-Tatum highlight must be Dallas' return to the stage for one last dance, as it takes the pathetic buffoonery of a has-been and decisively twists it into not just defiance but even a kind of bittersweet triumph.

Indeed, Mike wouldn't work half as well as it does without the vast sympathy it reserves for its strippersMike especially, of course, but it has room in its heart for every last man at Xquisite.  (The sole exception is The Kid, who, as noted, is barely a human at all.)

Every stripper has the outline of a character, beyond their rippling physiques.  The stand-out, so to speak, is Big Dick Richie, the subject of both the biggest laugh and the best shot in the whole dang picture.  Even so, it's hard to deny Tarzan, whose hulking, charming laziness doesn't just fuck up innumerable dance routines, but informs every movement he makes, bringing subtle background laughs every time he walks into the frame.  It's funny but it furthers Mike's point, too: Tarzan doubles as a dark vision of the future, a constant reminder that this is a young man's game, even (and maybe especially) when you're huge.

The surfeit of relatable humanity in Mike is embodied in Channing Tatum's subtle, self-flagellating performance off the stage, which finally (and rightfully) made the Charming Potato a star.  His chummy decency, we know, is real; meanwhile, his practiced phoniness actually makes him miserable, but he sees no other option.  McConnaughey's performance is a gem, too, taking on the iconography of his persona (nude bongos make an appearance) and even his iconic lines ("Alright, alright, alright!" delivered in that pothead/redneck drawl), but only to make them a counterpoint to a hard-nosed rational economic actor.

Now, for the bad stuff: it's possible to credit Mike for lacking in shrill, cliched moralism that such scandalous and titillating pictures so often fall back upon in self-defense.  But this is not to say that what we're seeing isn't still a stridently conservative narrative.  This attitude, assumed practically unconsciously, is easily its biggest problem.

Mike's conservatism manifests as warmly paternalistic as long as the focus stays on the Xquisite crew, even when The Kid's shenanigans become genuinely dangerous.  However, when we step into the cold yellow daylight which Soderbergh has chosen to represent Tampa for reasons that do not ever make themselves obvious, we are confronted with the bracing presence of Adam's sister Brooke.  Cody Horn's performance is never quite as overtly "prim" (not to say "bitchy") as the script asks for, but she escapes neither her stock typewhich is the representation of everything real that Mike's world lacksnor her stock rolewhich is to look down on Mike with barely-concealed disgust, and shame him into being "better," although in the film's mellowness it's actually rather hard to see how Mike's golden soul ever shows the tarnish that would justify this attitude.  If Horn (and Soderbergh's editing) bring a note to it that suggests it's more about her own shame, due to her understandably wet panties, this isn't anything anybody follows through on; surely she never comes off as genuinely trying to push Mike to achieve his dream, which I don't think she even cares about.

Mike's sudden retrenchment into conventionality comes close to souring what is, I think, supposed to be a happy ending; but I've decided to embrace the contradiction inherent to this system instead.  Mike is a story about growing up about ten years too late.  And there are vanishly few things more grown-up in this world than a man finally coming to terms with the hypocrisy of society, and recognizing that in surrender there can remain a kind of victory.

So make your furniture, Mike.  Fail respectably.

Score: 8/10

1 comment:

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