Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 22, 2012)
Nearly 25 years into his directorial career, Steven Soderbergh continues to confound expectations with his cinematic choices. Today’s example: 2012’s Magic Mike, a drama about the world of male strippers.
Set in Tampa, we meet Mike (Channing Tatum), a true jack-of-all-trades. He runs his own mobile detailing business, creates unique furniture to sell, works construction – and spends nights at a local club as exotic dancer “Magic Mike”. At a building site, he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), an unmotivated slacker content to sleep on his sister Brooke’s (Cody Horn) couch and work odd jobs.
On a night out, Adan bumps into Mike and finds out about the latter’s evening job. Confronted with the prospect of easy money and endless tail, Alex agrees to join the gang as their newest stripper. We follow their growing friendship and the way their lives evolve as Adam embraces the nightlife and Mike starts to think he needs something more from his existence.
I ended up at a theatrical screening of Magic over the summer, which was completely due to the Soderbergh Factor. I respect the director enough that I’ll give his work a look even when I don’t find myself particularly interested in the subject matter.
Maybe that needs to stop. Actually, Soderbergh’s last two films pre-Magic - 2011’s Contagion and early 2012’s Haywire - looked intriguing regardless of Soderbergh’s involvement; his presence simply added a touch of prestige. Unfortunately, neither movie did much for me.
Though it comes with the topic that appeals least to me, Magic probably works the best of these three flicks, though that’s semi-faint praise, as I don’t think highly of the picture. It’s not a bad flick, but it consistently seems ordinary and unremarkable.
The main problem comes with the lackluster narrative and simplistic characters. Magic is based loosely on Tatum’s own experiences, but we don’t get a great sense of honesty or verisimilitude here. Instead, we find a predictable tale of a guy who needs to grow up and take charge of his life; there’s nothing here we’ve not seen 1000 times already.
Soderbergh does bring more style to the film than others would, but he doesn’t do enough to elevate the pedestrian material. Essentially Magic often feels like a series of stripper scenes with a movie built around them.
That was clearly the flick’s selling point – it didn’t attract throngs of women because they cared about character development – but the nightclub sequences make the film drag. They’re pretty non-essential, as they do little to nothing to advance the characters or situations. I think we could’ve lived with a taste of them but not as much as we get; the stripping shots fill nearly 20 minutes of screen time.
I suppose one could make similar claims about the dance scenes in Saturday Night Fever. However, I think they do tell us something about the characters, and some shots help with the story as well. For instance, we need to see the “climactic” dance contest to understand why Tony felt it was rigged; without visuals to support the tale, his actions wouldn’t have made much sense.
Nothing similar occurs in Magic. In this film, the stripping scenes feel like they’re there for basic titillation, and I suspect that’s the case; like I said, the movie made lots of money due to its appeal as a “Girls Night Out”.
But that doesn’t mean they work in cinematic terms, and the meandering narrative doesn’t help. Though it mostly focuses on Mike, the film branches off to Adam’s story enough that it loses its way. Indeed, after a while, you start to think Adam will be the main character, but as the film goes, he becomes less and less essential to the point where he’s little more than a plot device.
And a jerky one at that. While we might expect Magic to give us some growth/improvement in Adam via the standard “coming of age” story, instead the opposite occurs. He goes down the nightlife rabbit hole and never gains redemption; by the film’s end, we dislike Adam and view him as wholly irresponsible and selfish. Perhaps this happens to make Mike more endearing as a contrast, but it still seems like a bad choice.
As for the actors, they’re generally fine, though I prefer Tatum in comedy. He’s great in light fare but less impressive when placed in dramatic territory. Perhaps that’s why Magic works best in its first act when it gives us a perkier take on its subject/characters; once the movie goes darker, it falters.
Ultimately, Magic Mike never goes off the rails enough to qualify as a bad film, but it doesn’t come together in a way that makes it satisfying. With a meandering story, dull characters and a general lack of focus, it’s not an especially entertaining ride.