“I am not my lifestyle.”

Like the words out of the mouth of the titular Mike, director Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike is a film about conviction. More so, it’s about the dark paths one’s own conviction can lead down if unchecked. Is Mike his lifestyle? Magic Mike aims to answer.

The story of two men, each at a precipice in their lives, Magic continues Soderbergh’s hot streak in the mainstream – one that arguably started with Contagion. Like the best kind of slow burn 70s fare, it’s a film that unfolds slowly and steadily. Think Saturday Night Fever by way of The Conversation and you’re getting close to what Soderbergh and Tatum (whose own life experiences as a male stripper serve as a jumping off point) have accomplished here. Similar to how Brokeback Mountain was more than the “gay cowboy” movie, it’d be easy to categorize Magic Mike as the “male stripper” movie if it didn’t double as such a finely crafted thinkpiece.

And it’s that explicit male stripperness of Magic that will cause some to erroneously dismiss. Which also makes it all the more intriguing: a film tackling objectification that will no doubt be objectified. Truthfully, the trailers don’t do it a disservice. There are ample amounts of man candy on display here: gratuitous butt shots, glistening six packs, big dicks stuffed into bigger dick pumps that fill up the frame – it’s all there in spades. If that’s a turnoff, if that’s a turn-on, that’s entirely the point.

The opposite of nine to five.

Mike (Channing Tatum) is a man struggling against preconceived notions. He’s come to the end of the stripping game with little more than a paltry chunk of change and some contemporary furniture sketches to show for it.  By inviting college dropout Adam (The Kid, Alex Pettyfer) into his lifestyle, you get the sense that he’s passing the torch. Mike’s very good at what he does, and his new friendship is to both men’s benefit early on. But as Mike grows weary of the life, Adam only gets hungrier – driven into depravity by an endless supply of women and drugs.

The dichotomy of these dueling convictions is the crux of the film, each man seeking a very different endgame. Soderbergh and screenwriter Reid Carolin infuse Magic Mike with enough life to never make that conceit feel on–the-nose. Mike’s growth is partly inspired by Adam’s straight and narrow sister Paige (Cody Horn), as he sees in her a fresh start. There’s a mutual attraction that’s put off by how Mike makes his livelihood (by exposing his livelihood).

With few directors as good in the casting stage, it should come as no surprise that the performers fair their best. McConaughey turns in the showiest performance, one where his lack of shirt finally feels natural. His Dallas is a slimeball, and McConaughey’s slithery frame and surly Texas drawl suit the character perfectly. Tatum is essentially playing himself, but his physicality and legit movie star presence are once again evident. Horn’s work is altogether conservative, but her inherent skepticism serves the film.

Pettyfer, an actor I had all but dismissed in 2011, plays Adam as a prickish kid who gravitates toward stripping like a moth to the flame – like it’s the only thing that ever came easy. He begins as a selfish guy who eventually sinks into a world that will allow him to be nothing but himself. One can surmise that Adam is incapable of ever arriving at the conclusions reached by Mike. It’s a great turn, and one that should significantly raise the young actor’s profile.

McConaughey, in a role he was born to play.

Soderbergh’s minimalist cinematography works to the intended result, as the bright lights of the stage do all the work to sell the nightly atmosphere. It’s contrasted with the saturated, dusky daytime scenes. Like our main characters, Soderbergh’s camera has an aversion to daylight – bathing it in a way that puts us at a distance. There’s a day scene where the strippers party at boss Dallas’ (Matthew McConaughey) home, and it’s as if the windows are boarded up. The morning and noon hours become a distant, unnatural habitat for our characters.

Magic Mike injects a certain amount of subversiveness into its final scenes. While Adam’s payoff is telegraphed from the beginning of the film, Mike’s is hazier. Many will view Mike’s ending as a happy one. And if objectification is what he’s trying to escape, I’d argue that he fails. I’m guessing Soderbergh wants to leave room for debate, but it feels like a slight betrayal to what’s, up to that point, a film steeped in its own truths.

Similar to Traffic and The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh has once again crafted a work that feels true to the subculture it dissects. It doesn’t matter what Mike believes he is, what matters is the perceptions of those around him – bringing us back to that ever-present matter of lifestyle. Magic Mike surmises that it’s all we are; if only because it’s all others will ever see.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

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