THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF EQUITY: A Review of MAGIC MIKE
There’s a whole lot of man flesh on display in MAGIC MIKE. Every ten minutes or so, director Steven Soderbergh, the man whose erratic array of movies bounds from micro-budget dramas such as FULL FRONTAL, BUBBLE, SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE and THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE to large-scale ensemble pictures like TRAFFIC, CONTAGION and the OCEAN’S trilogy, brings us new and wildly different takes on the art of the striptease. From patriotic soirees to wild west homages to an entire bit dedicated solely to the myth of Tarzan and beyond, the dutiful displays from the men of Xquisite are at once a parade of sexuality but also subtextual reachings towards the days when men were men. Masculinity unleashed is the name of their game.
But deep down, there’s insecurity to these men. They are not nearly as manly as their wanton displays of their ripped abs and toned buttocks suggest – they are merely human. It’s this very human side that Soderbergh digs deep into through MAGIC MIKE, and it is what makes it an effective, sharp slice of independent filmmaking.
Mike (Channing Tatum) is an entrepreneur, or he’d like to think of himself as such. Six years on as a dancer at the Tampa strip club Xquisite, owned by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), he has his fingers in several different pies. He works as a roofer by day, assembling fancy shingles for people who have much more money than he does, and turns to the hustle of dancing at night. In between, he’s managed to squeeze in several other business ventures, the latest of which is handmade furniture design and construction. Adam (Alex Pettyfer), referred to for most of the movie and exclusively by his male compatriots as The Kid, is a nineteen year old who has come to the end of his rope when it comes to finding a 9-to-5 that fulfills him as a person. He’s living on his sister Brooke (Cody Horn)’s couch, refusing to wear a tie to work, refusing to go into business for anyone that might strangle his individuality, and generally driving his sister up the wall by doing so. He gets a job as a roofer, and Mike takes a shine to him. After a dinner half-intended to get Brooke’s boyfriend to express interest in hiring Adam, he walks off into the Tampa nightlife, runs across Mike in line, and then finds himself pushed into the hustle that is strip club customer finagling.
“You owe me,” Mike tells Adam. And for the rest of the picture, Mike continues to dig himself a hole to keep Adam’s head above the water. They become best friends arbitrarily, after diving off a bridge to finish an amorous night with a birthday girl and her best friend whom Mike had enlisted Adam to attract to the club.
This is the core of the movie – one man taking another under his wing, and the fallout that descends from it.
While much has been made of the stripper aspect of the movie, and while it does deliver the goods on that front – which surely will bring in loose cash from women of all ages (especially judging by the $15 million opening day) the way loose cash pours onto the men as they hit the climactic moment of their dances – the movie finds itself more concerned with Mike as a businessman and a human being. Tatum presents Mike as a hustler, but not a singular one; in every aspect of his life, he pushes himself to make something more of what he’s doing. He’s constantly trying to jump off from the anchoring rock of his stripping career every chance he gets, whether that’s by making overtures at Brooke or trying to solidify a real relationship with almost-a-shrink Jamie (Olivia Munn). At one point, thinking he’s got all his affairs in order, he heads to a bank, gathering himself into a suit and tie and glasses, hoping to get a loan so his handmade furniture business can take off and he can be a self-made man. He’s soundly rejected due to having poor credit.
Isolation becomes a problem for Mike. As the designated best friend to Adam, he has to try to protect The Kid – which is keeping him from simply cutting all ties to the business and wiping his slate clean – but the longer he floats along in this particular ocean, the further he gets from a shore to crawl onto. The movie separates itself into the three months of summer, with a title card, white on black, coming up in the sort of fanciful type that one associates with strip clubs, telling us if it is JUNE, JULY, or AUGUST. And as each month comes up, we realize how much farther Mike is getting from his goals, how distant the idea of an everyday life can seem. And all the while, Dallas continues to dangle a carrot above his head – Miami is in the future if they collect enough money, a whole new venue, all new women, more diverse and richer than in little old Tampa. Dallas is promising equity for his boys – ten percent for everyone! It’s the small business dream come true.
But this isn’t the only type of equity that Mike is looking for. Financial freedom, ownership of something he helped build is one thing – but Mike, as I’ve underlined several times already, wants a different type of freedom. He wants to be on the same level as any other small businessman in America. He wants to not have to hustle anymore. The older he gets, the more he’s reminded that life will only get more and more pathetic if he continues down the path he’s on. Whether it’s Brooke pointing out that he’s nearly 30 and still waving his dick around in a thong, hanging around at a party in which there’s no one but the strippers and hangers-on, or running across old flames who are moving forward with life, he gets reminded more and more: he is alone. And it’s only going to get lonelier. Sure, there’s Adam – but being almost 30 and trying to keep up with a 19 year old who has been handed the keys to his wildest dreams will send anyone to an early grave. The longer Mike remains tethered to Adam, the worse his own life gets.
The tethers of other people are at the heart of business – but those tethers can become chains that drag us down. They can drown us. There’s a space between despair and hope, and this is where MAGIC MIKE finds itself – following one man as he tries to push himself from the darkness to the light.