This is not THAT movie. I mean it is, but it isn’t.
Let me back up. I realize that I’ve skipped ahead two films. But I’ve been sick, and I thought Magic Mike would provide some lighthearted fun, and, you know, Channing Tatum dancing in various states of undress. He’s a really good dancer, which I think Step Up proved. My mom, who loves Matthew McConaughey, accompanied me. [Note: maybe don't take your mom, but if you do, be prepared to explain certain "devices" and whatnot.] If you and your friends decide to have a night out at Magic Mike just a heads up [ahem], do not expect to see the film offered in this trailer:
The film is heavier than the rollicking good time many people are paying to see.
When we arrived, mom and I encountered a rather long line for a show in the middle of the afternoon. As we stood behind the velvet rope, I couldn’t help but take note of the metamoment: the parallels between the women standing in line outside Xquisite, as I had seen in a preview, and all of us standing in line waiting to get into a film about women standing in line to look at male strippers. Voyeurism twice removed, or perhaps magnified x2.
[What appears to be a digression but is actually a backstory related to this post.] I knew a male stripper once. He was nice. His stage persona “Mr. Rock-n-Roll” was a hairband member; the look included a sky-high coif buttressed with Stiff Stuff [sucio, it's a hairspray], layers of zebra striped bandanas wrapped around the ankles of his knee-high white leather boots hidden underneath chaps that accentuated a silver metallic g-string. My friend and I met him one night at a heavy metal bar [it was a long time ago]. After buying us drinks with a stack of ones, my friend jokingly asked, “Are you a stripper or something?” To which he replied, “Well, yeah.”
After his friend ditched him to go home with some girl, we drove Darryl, a.k.a. Mr Rock-n-Roll, back to his car, which was parked at the strip club where he worked. As a thank you for being good samaritans, he invited us to his show the following night, though he advised us to sit at the back bar and not down front at a table. “The banks are seated closest to the stage,” he offered wryly. “Plus there’s a twenty dollar drink minimum for tables in the first three rows.” We were told to give our names to the doorman. He would take us to the back bar, where we could watch the dancers and drink for free. The view from the cheap seats was something I’ll never forget. Women standing at the foot of the stage waving money fans in the air [these were the "banks"]; the money moving from hand to crotch; and, yes, the elephant trunk g-string all made an impression, but not as much as the unbridled unapologetic open lusting on the part of the women. Even though I was too young to really understand or put into words what I was seeing, I found the ownership of female sexual desire shocking.
I saw that same look today in the crowd of women (and a few men) waiting in line to see Magic Mike. The age range of the people queued up was impressive, from eighteen to eighty-five. I loved the bus-load of senior women who were loud and nervous with anticipation. The girls with the Alex Pettyfer screensavers on their SmartPhones. The indulgent partners, one seemingly reluctant, the other giddy. Groups of women instantly made connections, sharing stories and confessions like old friends.
Medical Assistant: “I took ten-minute lunches starting last Thursday so I could take off early from work to see the movie before I have to pick up my kids at 5:30.”
Mom #1: “My husband told me not to tell him if I saw the movie.”
Mom #2: “Oh, [my husband] doesn’t care; he just didn’t want to come with me. I told him ‘that’s fine. I’ll take myself.’” [Laughter.]
Young person #1: “Why don’t they make more films like this for women?”
Young person #2: “You mean movies about male strippers or with Channing Tatum.”
Young person #1: “BOTH!”
Guy #1: “We are like the only dudes in line.”
Guy #2: “Tell me again, why we are seeing this?”
Guy #1: “Because you know our girlfriends are going to ask us to do some Magic Mike sh*t, and we need to know what that means.”
Guy #2: ” . . . .”
When they opened the theater doors to let us file in, a woman towards the front of the line dropped her box of candy and packaged pretzel. As she balanced her snack tray, purse, and sweater, all while trying to collect the items from the floor, the throng parted and flowed around her re-pooling on the other side. No one stopped to help her. Even her movie companion fled the scene in order to “save good seats.” E tu amis? So much for solidarity.
Inside the theater the audience was restless. There were outbursts of laughter. There were a few spontaneous “Whoop Whoops” and even a “Holla!” especially following Dallas’ explanation of the “rules.” And early on when Tatum’s naked butt walked across the screen, there was an audible gasp. It was at that point the elitistacadmeic knew something wasn’t quite right with this film. It felt like we were being bribed with nudity up front, which, of course, we were.
This movie is not funtastic. We do not, despite Rihanna’s promises in the preview, “find love in a hopeless place.” [We don't even get the song.] Magic Mike is not even transgressive. It is, in fact, the most conventional of stories, a kind of Coyote Ugly meets All About Eve with a pinch of an Imitation of Life: good guy with a heart of gold lends a hand to young “down and out” who has that “it” spark; student screws over teacher; breakfast food saves the day. Moviegoers looking for a party won’t find one in MM.
The film is oddly paced. At times, it looks grainy, washed out, in sepia; there’s too much light, not enough; it feels vérité; it’s as sleek as a music video, and then you realize what Soderbergh is doing. The fantasy is what’s vivid and alive; the “real” world, raw and life draining. Channing Tatum ferries audiences between worlds with soulful sincerity. He is the glue that holds the film together. [Cody Horn is godawful and scowls throughout. Adam Rodriguez looks like he's dancing on glass. Gabriel Iglesias is cast against type as a DJ wannabe drug dealer.]
Despite all the sexual swagger of MM, I was disappointed by its rather conservative message, albeit one nestled in velcro pants and thongs. It seemingly offers women the space to claim and act on their own desire, but men like Dallas manufacture and dictate the terms of that desire and, like Soderbergh, profit from doing so. What the film affirms, instead, is the desire to desire [see: Mary Ann Doane] because female sexual longing is confounded by the very means offered as an avenue for fulfillment: fantasy, “giving” women, for a price, simulations of what their husbands and boyfriends aren’t giving them at home, thus compounding their sexual frustration. In the end, the movie performs a moral and sexual slight of hand; the fantasy world we were invited into (and arguably the one most audiences paid to see) is corrupted, debauched, and abandoned in favor of a good morally chaste woman and conventional monogamy. When faced with this realization, it occurred to me that the “banks” aren’t always confined to the first three rows.