by Tony Dayoub
Is there any actor out there whose skills as a performer have improved faster than Channing Tatum? Not since Tom Cruise went from pudgy hanger-on in The Outsiders to superstar in Risky Business has there been a slab of beefcake as underestimated as Tatum. While I all but wrote him off as the lead in 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, I saw a glimmer of burgeoning talent when he played a dense but likeable hitman in Haywire and a mopey, outcast cop in this year's 21 Jump Street (just out on Blu-ray and DVD). In Steven Soderbergh's stripper drama, Magic Mike, Tatum carries a thin, vaguely familiar story to another level by sheer force of charisma, obliterating any thoughts that he is just a pretty boy.
Of course, Tatum acknowledges that it's easy to take him for just that in Magic Mike, a film very loosely based on the actor's experiences living it up as a young stripper after an injury ended his college football career. British model Alex Pettyfer stands in for Tatum, playing Adam, a 19-year-old hunk recruited by the titular Mike (played by Tatum) into a nocturnal wonderland of women, drugs, and cheesy stage acts at Xquisite, a Tampa strip joint owned by the shrewd Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Magic Mike initially takes the typical trajectory of films like A Star is Born. Naive Adam soon morphs into the jaded Kid, setting himself up for a huge fall by indulging a new drug habit and a tendency to overspend. The Kid essentially becomes a slave to his stage career in order to keep up with his vices. In some ways, this part of the movie—the Kid's aimless, one-day-at-a-time escapades—rings the truest. For anyone who has ever indulged in such partying, it evokes the unnatural bleeding of night into day and back into night characteristic of the endless summer bacchanal.
But Soderbergh allows Magic Mike to veer off into the more intriguing tangent of Mike's life prospects. Maybe the most honest scene in the film is one in which Mike counts the dollar bills he earned onstage, straightening each wadded up single as he stacks them, before placing a large, thick book on the stack to flatten them. It's a scene rife with equal parts humiliation and hope. Tired of the grind, Mike hopes Dallas will cut him in on a piece of the door receipts so he can quit dancing and devote his time to making custom furniture. Viewed in the context of the current economic slowdown, Magic Mike can be seen as a companion to Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, another character study about someone whose value as a living commodity is rapidly depreciating as a result of the hard times being felt. In Magic Mike, Soderbergh shows us Americans who have decided to ignore their economic reality, choosing to return to their expensive entertainments (like strip joints) as a conscious form of mass denial. What better metaphor is there to illustrate this than the hurricane party, a defiant act dismissing the danger of a life-threatening storm that is well known to those of us who grew up in the tropics? It is at just such a celebration that Dallas steps on Mike's dream when he announces his move to Miami but only offers Mike a fraction of the percentage he had previously promised.
Magic Mike's male cast is uniformly good. McConaughey is one of the standouts among them. Appropriately clad in snakeskin and leather, his Dallas is a variation of the oily character he has played before, only this one harbors monetary obsessions. Pettyfer gets the job done as the Kid, but there is some deception here. Much of the blank Pettyfer's performance is shaped by Soderbergh's editing in the same way he made something out of very little with MMA star Gina Carano earlier this year in Haywire. Even pro wrestler Kevin Nash, who plays the stripper named Tarzan does a serviceable job... except when he's asked to dance. Like another sports figure turned actor, baseball player Jeff Richards of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Nash slowly disappears off-frame whenever a musical number starts, but not before executing some awful dance moves onscreen.
The female cast is more of a mixed bag. Cable personality Olivia Munn does a much better job than expected as a woman from whom Mike seeks solace from time to time. But the flatly affected Cody Horn, the female lead (and daughter of studio executive Alan Horn) is wooden as the Kid's scolding sister and Mike's potential love interest. Riley Keough, Elvis Presley's granddaughter, plays a siren that lures the Kid deeper and deeper into the void he soon finds himself mired in; while she has far less screen time, Keough is equally expressionless. Is Soderbergh, usually acute in his casting, proposing some sort of sly corollary between Pettyfer's vacuity, the superficial performances of these nepotists and the lack of substance in the empty lives of Magic Mike's male strippers? I'd like to think so, but surely he can't be that calculating.
Aside from all of the commentary on our current economic state, aside from the hyper-focus on all of the pretty bodies and the surface thrills they elicit in the movie's spectators (and by implication, the movie's audience; two females in my screening were cheering during the stage acts as if they really were at a strip club), what makes Magic Mike so winsome is the actor at its focal point. Perhaps, in turning his gaze inward to come up with Magic Mike, Tatum found himself as disappointing an actor as we have and decided to step up his game. Whatever the case, Tatum progresses considerably from the bimbo I once mistook him for into an actor worth watching.