Given it was directed by Steven Soderbergh Magic Mike has immediate credentials as part of independent (‘indie’) cinema, but Soderbergh has always been very effective (in a similar way to Gus Van Sant) at positioning himself within and without the Hollywood mainstream. Independence is an elusive quality – is it financing? is it subject matter? – but it can certainly attach itself to directors. Soderbergh’s body of work is often clearer in moving between different institutional ‘pools’ than others – in a strategy that could be called ‘one for them, one for me’ – rather than remaining in that nebulous region previously called ‘Indiewood’ but often referred to as ‘indie’ by researchers and academics – a third way separate from either mainstream or full independence. The financing – indb.com lists FilmNation as a backer, an interesting hybrid company run by Glen Basner (ex-Head of Sales Focus Features and Weinstein Company – covering two of the indie markets big winners) and Aaron Ryder. They have an eclectic mix of talent ranging from European imports to genre pieces and the more commercial and are financing at all levels in the chain. They scored a massive hit by acting as a sales agent for The King’s Speech and are distributing the Soderbergh film – placing themselves in the tradition of Focus and the early Weinsteins with the variety of products, both US and European. Definitely independent, then, but open to a wide variety of projects.
It was difficult to know what to expect, then, with Matthew McConaughey in one of the roles (who has distinctly not turned his nose up at the most mainstream of Hollywood pay cheques) and not forgetting the teen appeal of Channing Tatum. Did I mention it’s a film about male strippers? Soderbergh’s work veers between multiplexes and arthouse but this was always going to sit successfully in the former with its stars and subject matter. Tatum’s first appearance showed the film’s knowledge of this; wittily in a film about male physical performance, the film got the whole nudity issue out of the way immmediately (full non-frontal for those who may be concerned) and generated a sharp intake of female breath from a group somewhere behind me in the cinema. That knowingness about film-making – the self-consciousness – is a particular hallmark of Soderbergh, always inviting you to be in on another level of amusement running alongside the narrative.
Soderbergh challenged Tatum during their work together on Haywire to come up with a story related to a youthful interlude spent as a male stripper. Tatum did – and in the Reid Carolin scripted story it has taken flight as a combination of Soderbergh’s ability to channel the cinema of earlier eras, to edit with a strong sense of parallel narrative and of his ability to create, almost immediately, a strong sense of mood and place – how people feel on any given Sunday (or other day) that’s very recognisable and empathic. This film’s mood reminded me of the New York Times review of Kathryn Bigelow’s sufter-heist movie Point Break as a narrative examining the problems a surfing subculture left too long out in the sun – what had appeared subversive, rebellious has become seedy and impure. Similarly, the perks and freedoms of being a male stripper – seen through the eyes of Adam (Alex Pettyfer), the ingenue, at the beginning of the film – become more stale, more corrupted as the film proceeds. Soderbergh’s cinematography changes to match this alternation in mood, more of the expressionistic style of his Oscar-winning Traffic becomes apparent as the film progresses to represent the sinking into excessive drink and drugs as part of the ‘fun’ that can be had in this profession.
What do male strippers mean to most audiences? The women audiences in Soderbergh’s film (as in real life) find the whole process funny and exciting in equal measure. The film makes a fascinating counterpoint to movies where women appear stripping – I haven’t seen Showgirls (and don’t really intend to) but I have seen The Wrestler where Marisa Tomei delivers as much of a great performance in the ‘tart with a heart’ role as Mickey Rourke does as the reinvented wrestler. Here as elsewhere, women are represented (rightly) as oppressed by this economic necessity – and this film about men interestingly manages to capture this same constriction for the male performers. They may be the centre of attention on stage and desirable – but they are living a lifestyle of quiet desperation and with a desire to be able to break out of the stereotype and move away. A version of The Full Monty where the narrative somehow runs backwards.
McConaghey plays the role of the dubious entrepreneur and manager of the strip club, Dallas, with the most confident swagger and as if revelling in his slightly villainous credentials. Having made his money, this actor appears to be enjoying working in these less mainstream parts – although they all seem to demand this particular cool confidence as part of the characterisation and his return to indie brand value. A long time since Thirteen Conversations about One Thing, where more was demanded of him, but this year’s CV is amassing roles from directors such as Lee Daniels (the literary adaptation The Paperboy), Richard Linklater (the delayed release of Bernie with Jack Black) and William Friedkin in Killer Joe. His performance is laden with irony and camp (see the photo above) but manages not to drift into caricature and to affect the film’s balance between comedy and its more serious messages. This is a simple morality tale – and quite openly schematic in its allocation of the roles of good and corrupt.
As the man in the centre of the moral and personal dilemma, Channing Tatum is also moving in an unexpected career direction through his second collaboration with Soderbergh (who worked with George Clooney as producing partners for a number of years, as well as regularly with Matt Damon as an actor). Soderbergh does manage the star ensemble effectively – making the dynamics work equally between players of different star ratings (Full Frontal is one of his films which is an underplayed pleasure for that). Soderbergh has come near the subject matter of workers in some level of the sex industry in The Girlfriend Experience – which makes an interesting counterpoint to me because that film had a deliberately unerotic and flat quality (its digital shooting enhanced this I think) in dealing with life of a call girl. This is a movie, though, about how ‘whoring’ themselves affects the men who do it – a film with a strong moral centre, provided schematically by the character of Adam’s sister, Brooke, and her clear disapproval and anxiety and ultimately conventional moral lessons. There was nothing new to Magic Mike – Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo was in the background – but a confident hand could blend the very different tones and filmic styles into a cohesive watch. The sequences in the strip club are quite brilliant – and very funny – even without Tom Jones (You Can Keep Your Hat On) on the soundtrack. Carolin and Tatum’s own company, Ironhorse, has a Magic Mike 2 in development. Never say independent production turns its nose up at a sequel.