Friday, June 29, 2012

Magic Mike: No rabbit in this hat

Magic Mike (2012) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: R, for pervasive sexual content, profanity, drug use and fleeting graphic nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.29.12

For perhaps 15 minutes, Channing Tatum’s title character seems an honorable fellow, deserving sympathy and worthy of our hope that he might escape the unusual lifestyle into which he had trapped himself.

Despite his best efforts, Mike (Channing Tatum) can't get Brooke (Cody
Horn) to take him seriously: no surprise, really, since his "best efforts"
at sincerity inevitably ring hollow. Which begs the crucial question:
Would it actually be a good thing if this independent young woman
were to fall in love with this jerk?
But that, it soon became clear, was giving far too much credit to Reid Carolin’s vacuous, soulless and utterly pointless screenplay. Magic Mike is worse than disappointing; it’s boring. It can’t even succeed as a titillating guilty pleasure, and that’s a harsh indictment for a project so consumed with the world of male strippers.

We’re never made to care about any of these guys, let alone the few women who revolve around their self-absorbed orbits. Nobody deserves redemption, and not even Tatum’s Mike deserves happiness; he does nothing to earn it. Carolin’s core plot is as old as Hollywood’s hedonistic hills — dewy-eyed innocent gets seduced and quickly overwhelmed by the sybaritic delights of his new occupation — and this slog of a film does nothing to freshen up the material, or make it interesting in any manner.

All of which is quite a surprise, considering that the man at the helm is Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh. What a waste of time and talent.

We must remember, though, that Soderbergh comes in several different flavors. He’s the consummate observer of human nature who brought us exceptional dramas such as King of the Hill, Erin Brockovich and Traffic; he’s also the crowd-pleasing entertainer who delighted us with star-studded confections such as Ocean’s Eleven, Out of Sight and The Good German.

For the purposes of this discussion, however, Soderbergh is the kink-obsessed voyeur and stylistic renegade who began his big-screen career with 1989’s sex, lies and videotape, and then tortured us 13 years later with the jaw-droppingly inept and deadly dull Full Frontal, truly one of the worst films ever made by an A-list director.

That's the guy who made Magic Mike.

This film’s most irritating stylistic tic surfaces quickly, with Soderbergh’s reliance on a seemingly spontaneous approach to dialogue delivery. All his actors fumble and stumble through their lines, obviously deliberately, as if to suggest verisimilitude by mimicking the way ordinary people talk to each other in real life. Our speech often is punctuated by pauses and struggles for the right words, as opposed to the sparkling, perfectly timed bon mots traditionally delivered in movies.

OK, fair point. But it simply doesn’t work here; too often these actors — most particularly Tatum — look and sound as if they can’t remember their lines. Or, worse yet, like they’re improvising dialogue on the spot, and doing a truly terrible job of it.

There’s a world of difference between naturalistic and incompetent, and Magic Mike too frequently feels like the latter.

Mike, pushing 30, fancies himself a self-made entrepreneur who pursues the American Dream from as many angles as possible, whether roofing houses and detailing cars, or designing bizarre but oddly appealing furniture in his Tampa beach condo. He also works nights as the headliner in the all-male revue that rocks the stage at Club Xquisite, a seedy but undeniably successful hot spot run by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey).

Once upon a time, years back, Dallas spotted, mentored and groomed Mike into a colleague and kinda-sorta business partner. The latter part is vexingly vague in Carolin’s script, partly because the clumsy dialogue inevitably fails to properly explain such details. Somehow, though, Mike has a small but significant percentage of Dallas’ operation, which could turn into an even bigger deal if they’re able to make a long-promised transition to better surroundings in Miami.

Despite all his hard work, though, Mike has saved very little money: a laughably small amount, even though one character in this story seems quite impressed by it (yet another indication of this script’s tone-deafness).

Through a series of events too contrived for words, Mike drags 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer) along to one of the Club Xquisite gigs. Adam needs a job; Dallas agrees to hire him for one night as a sort of gofer; circumstances conspire to send Adam out on the stage, where he clumsily strips to the nonetheless delighted squeals of Tampa ladies, and A New Star Is Born.

Hey, I know that movies are all about fantasy, coincidence and artifice, but Carolin and Soderberg don’t even try to make this turn of events seem plausible.

Mike becomes Adam’s mentor, of sorts, and helps the kid develop an act and purchase a wardrobe. The latter comes as a shock to Adam’s sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), with whom he lives. She, no surprise, is none too pleased by her baby brother’s new career, but she reluctantly steps back to let him follow his own path.

Besides, Mike promises to look after the lad.

(Yeah ... that’ll work!)

Needless to say, things go awry, due to a combination of drug-dealing, casual sex with ill-advised female companions — notably Riley Keough’s Nora, who comes complete with a pet piglet (!) — and Adam’s self-destructive lack of self-control. All these “crises” are typical, predictable and pointless, in the sense that they serve no purpose in the realm of character-building. Nobody learns from any of the countless mistakes made here.

On top of which, the acting is so clumsy that at one point, when Mike rescues Adam from a fate worse than death, and Adam then toasts Mike as “my best friend,” we can’t tell whether the younger man’s gesture is sincere, or whether Mike takes it that way, or whether he finally sees Adam for the self-absorbed jerk that he truly is. Not that we care.

The endless, endless, endless strip routines on the Club Xquisite stage are similarly useless. Sure, they’re funny and awkwardly smutty the first few times, but they quickly turn into a yawn. By comparison, the hilariously flamboyant flesh-baring in 1995’s notoriously awful Showgirls was electrifying and at least mildly sexy; the whipping off of breakaway jeans and T-shirts here becomes a crushing bore.

We’d obviously care more if a sociological point of view were present. Do Mike and his fellow strippers derive ego-stroking pleasure from so easily enticing their female audiences? Do these guys get off on this ability to turn the erotic tables, by dominating women? Or is the nightly bump-and-grind just a soul-deadening chore, with no more mental involvement than an exercise routine at the local gym?

There’s simply no way to tell, since we learn nothing about Mike’s various colleagues: Ken (Matt Bomer, in an unexpected switch from his starring role on TV’s White Collar), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Tito (Adam Rodriguez) and Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello). They’re all ciphers: wallpaper granted a meaningless line here, a superficial gesture there.

The one exception is Dallas. McConaughey roars through his performance, breathing badly needed life into this tepid story’s sole interesting character. Dallas clearly adores the spotlight, lives to entice women, and loves his function as an emcee every bit as naughty and charismatic as Joel Grey’s Master of Ceremonies in 1972’s Cabaret.

Olivia Munn injects some erotic tension as Joanna, a psychology post-grad willing to make occasional house calls at Mike’s request ... to a point. Again, though, we don’t learn enough about Joanna to view her as more than a skank with a university degree.

Pettyfer can’t act a lick; he doesn’t give a single credible line reading. Horn shows more potential; Brooke is the sole “normal” character in this lackadaisical morality play, and she has a natural presence that builds interest in this young woman’s place in these events. But she, too, is saddled with hopeless dialogue that too frequently sounds like a failed method-acting exercise.

The only successful magic trick played by this film will be the act of separating unsuspecting patrons from their hard-earned cash ... until word gets out.

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