Friday, July 27, 2012

MAGIC MIKE and the Tantulus of easy money

The record-breaking temperatures in Toronto this summer have made movie theatres a welcome refuge.

Last Saturday night, my friend and I decided to go see MAGIC MIKE.  Channing Tatum, who stars in this picture, co-wrote the script based on his personal experiences as a male stripper.  The demi-monde of ambiguous and tawdry sexual relations ( Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Girlfriend Experience) is a place filmmaker Steven Soderburgh has visited before. In some ways, this script and his talents as a director and a shooter are a natural pairing. Here, he runs sexual desires and economic desperation together in yet another uneasy and unholy alliance.

The film begins with a scene of financial emasculation.  Adam is a 19 year old man who has shown great promise as an athlete.  Accepted to university on a football scholarship, he gets kicked out day one for hitting his coach. Now broke and sleeping on his sister's couch, he is reduced to scrambling for day labour as a roofer.  The pay is crap, the work is brutal and the boss makes Scrooge look like a reasonable guy.  With little education and few skills, our young hero's journey toward better prospects is not going to be an easy one.

Fellow roofer Mike is saving to start a custom furniture business .  To facilitate this, he has a second job at night, taking his clothes off in front of women. It's fairly lucrative and easier than roofing. Adam starts peeling for a living and his nice boy good looks and buff bod make him an instant hit with the college girls and middle aged ladies who come to watch his act in Tampa. He becomes a professional party boy in a tourist town that loves a good time.

This role reversal: mostly young men stripping for mostly young women initially gives the film a kind of innocence.   Soderburgh, perhaps wanting to curry favour with a straight(er) audience or perhaps wanting to ignore the fact that gay or straight, it is mostly men who pay for sex of every sort, avoids that territory entirely.

As the story progresses, the level of dis-inhibition required by such a public display of sexual desire on the part of both the spectators and the dancers is frequently arrived at through the use of drugs.  This leads to the usual unhappy and dangerous consequences.

The sinister and overheated glow Soderburgh bathes much of the film in taints everything it touches with the nasty chemical patina of a fake tan. The heat is on and it is both seductive and hellish.

Mike and Adam make a deal with the Devil in the form of strip club owner, Dallas. Matthew McConaughy  is riveting in the role of the MC/owner. He's the degenerate glamour of evil personified.  I've seldom seen a better depiction of a certain kind of narcissistic male: superficial charm on the outside and a sucking hole of need and entitlement on the inside that no amount of cash, coke or sexual adulation will ever fill.  The only person in the film old enough to be a parent to any of the young men who work for him, Dallas is a bad Daddy indeed.  He dangles the possibility of partnership in the club in front of Mike, then Adam with no intention of ever making them equals.  Dallas is as emasculating and enslaving as the business he's in. When he tears off his leather pants and flings his gilded body on the edge of the thrust stage of the nightclub, allowing girls to cover him with caresses and money, we feel the both his thrill in tantalizing and his terror. His performance is an act of supplication to the sure knowledge that he is at the end of his ephemeral and vacuous power, the thrall of his impossible and rapidly decaying beauty.

In MAGIC MIKE, all the jobs working class men used to do to command worth, respect and social currency:  the cowboy, the fireman, the construction worker, the cop, the military man are on offer as impotent parodies of themselves. Even the rebels, the biker boy and the beat box dancer, Magic Mike himself, are up for sale at the club.  The bad boys have become someone college girls and working women buy for the night before they go home to a boyfriend or husband with real career prospects.

When the military act comes onstage on the 4th of July, the U.S. Army is reduced to a tease, The men in uniform are a display of  hyper-masculinity that is really about currency extraction, as evidenced by the stuffed g-strings that end the dance. The film's metaphor is complete: this is America as strip club, a glossy, sexed-up spectacle of ersatz male dominance, offering only an illusion of power, the tropes of masculinity devoid of potency or command.

Of course the army is the only other real employment option for these young men and the theatre of war is no jiggle show. However there is no more moral certainty in taking up the gun abroad than there is in pretending sexual desire for money. The choice on offer for these men is a choice between rings in hell.

Soderburgh does a bit of a tease here himself.  He sets up all kinds of interesting questions.  What happens to a man when he divorces himself from his own sexual desires to service the desires of others? Is the wash of money in certain businesses as addictive as the drugs?  He then, sadly fails to answer them or even fully explore them.

Mike's attraction to Brooke, Adam's grounded older, working class, medical admin sister gives the film its heart. Both Tatum Channing and Cody Horn's performances are great.  Horn makes a meal of being a shrewd and silent observer of fools who think anything in life worth having will be easy or cheap. Channing shows us the suffering of a man who is not valued for who he is, a kind, hardworking and generous person, but rather  for what he looks like. There's a great moment in a bar when Mike runs into a girl he's been sleeping with who is out with her fiance.  He's one down, the dirty secret, the piece on the side, as disposable to this woman as last season's party shoes.

When Mike steps up and protects Adam from thugs after a drug deal gone awry, Brooke is finally able to see his moral worth and they have a tenuous but hopeful, human connection. Like Mike and Brooke, the audience is invested in Adam.  The ending is so ambiguous with regard to his fate, it fails to satisfy on any level.

The film ends up evoking much more than it delivers. MAGIC MIKE is a great tease and fun to look at, but in the end, like the strippers at its heart, it promises much more than it delivers.

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