Magic Mike reviewed by Armond White for CityArts

Beefcake with Arty Frosting Channing Tatum hides behind Magic Mike

By Armond White

So what if Channing Tatum started as a stripper? The problem with Magic Mike, the semi-autobiographical melodrama he co-produced, is that he couldn’t find a filmmaker to properly translate that beefcake experience to the screen.

Whatever Tatum knows about working-class ambition and exploitation (personal or Hollywood style) gets lost in director Steven Soderbergh’s affectless look at Mike Lane (Tatum), a multitasking, self-described entrepreneur (“It’s French,” he says) who spends most of his time humping-and-grinding at Tampa’s Xquisite Club that specializes in male strip shows for female customers.

Soderbergh emphasizes the strip show, intro’d by club owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), a lizardy, leathery All-American huckster. But he isn’t interested in eroticism. The sex-as-labor theme is itself exploited and trivialized in the Xquisite performances. Soderbergh shoots the routines (“It’s Raining Men” features the troupe in raincoats, suggestively stroking umbrellas) with the same slicked-up stylization that made Flashdance so phony–and yet made it a hit that set the sentimental template for the next several generations’ fuzzy ideas about egoism and success.

Magic Mike extends that sex/success fantasy with over-seriousness, misrepresenting Mike’s peculiar route toward his goal of making custom-designed furniture! If anything can be said with certainty in this life it’s that people who want to make furniture don’t become sex-workers. That term fits Soderbergh’s low-level shots of dollar-bills-in-thongs–a laughable Bresson affectation. But Magic Mike isn’t an analysis of leisure-as-work like Godard cinched in his capitalism/prostitution allegories A Married Woman or 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (which were also insightful essays on contemporary Paris). Soderbergh slogs through backstage clichés: Mike struggling against a status-rigged banking system and his doomed mentoring of Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a naïve, unmotivated, emotionally unstable 19-year-old spoiling to be despoiled.

While avoiding the overblown existentialism of P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights, Soderbergh’s still arty. His oblique close-up of a dancer using a vacuum penis-pump pretends to be austere but it’s really just another example of Soderbergh’s strange detachment: he’s always distant from his subject yet gives no perspective. Mike’s attraction to Adam’s motherly sister Brooke (Cody Horn) is as clichéd as the bits from Flashdance, 42nd Street, Showgirls and Saturday Night Fever although Soderbergh avoids their emotional payoffs. His drabness prevents dramatic satisfaction which ultimately prevents comprehension.

In Magic Mike, Channing Tatum trades-in his experience as stripper, dancer, actor for Hollywood glibness. Soderbergh seems uninterested in contemplating male sexuality (Tatum’s body) or the work of performance and public interaction–the things Ice Cube got superlatively right in his 1998 female-stripper movie The Player’s Club. This film is even more aggressively hetero. Among the gallery of specimen from pretty-boy Pettyfer to studly Joe Manganiello and the briefly exoticized Adam Rodriguez, Tatum’s charismatic athleticism is the most inviting. He’s open and energetic unlike his gloomy, introspective muse-characterizations for the urban poet Dito Montiel, yet Soderbergh disingenuousness encourages the self-defeating (so far) Hollywood stardom Tatum escaped his roots to accept.

Tatum’s Southern white boy essence and dancer’s eagerness could provide insight about the discipline of break-dancing culture, the working-class ambition and sexual currency of his pre-Hollywood years. But Mike’s glib soliloquies (“I’m not my goddam job!”) offer only recession-ready delusions. So does McConaghay’s impresario, a decadent business figure whose Dennis Hopper-craziness (“Fuck that mirror like you mean it!”) contrasts Mike’s magical innocence. Like the working-class slugs in Soderbergh’s 2005 abomination Bubble, all these characters are shallow. They strip to reveal nothing–despite Tatum’s promise of new physical truths.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair