Sunday, July 8, 2012

I went to see Channing Tatum's butt, but I also got this lousy movie

From the opening scene of Magic Mike.  I think I just saved you $10.

I haven't been to a movie in a queen's age, but this weekend I had a free evening, so I thought - why not?  I've been meaning to catch Moonrise Kingdom, which people have told me is charming, and which includes a turn by our very own Marianna Bassham. Or so I've heard - I haven't seen it yet; for the partner unit hadn't heard of Moonrise, but had definitely heard of Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh's ode to Channing Tatum's short-lived career as a Florida stripper.  So off we went - with seemingly three or four hundred giggly young women, traveling in packs - to take in what turned out to be a kind of "moonrise kingdom" in its own way.

For Soderbergh blithely cuts to the chase - or rather its target - in his very first scene (above), which reveals - in a tone of deadpan appreciation - precisely what his star, and his movie, are selling. Not that I'm complaining. Indeed, as this is one of those areas in which I can truly claim to be a connoisseur, I am duty bound to report that Mr. Tatum's derrière is among the best of its kind to ever grace the silver screen. I won't bore you (as Charles Isherwood might) with the full plethora of responses it inspired in my critical faculties - I think it's enough to say that by turns, its performance is insouciant, commanding, heartbreakingly vulnerable, and yet somehow haunting - along with a whole lot more good stuff.

Mostly, though, Channing's cheeks are just hot. And he knows it. He also knows that his moves are likewise sizzling - indeed, Magic Mike only comes together during its strip-club sojourns. Don't worry, in the end, as it were, these all prove chaste - Chippendales-style strippers never go "the full Monty;" the ladies in the crowd can have their beefcake, but they can't eat it, too (although reportedly at some European clubs, this line is being crossed with regularity). Still, when Mr. Tatum thrashes his way across, and against, the floor - or spins through the air like a phallic power drill - Magic Mike suddenly throbs with orgasmic abandon. This guy is all but a one-man sexual band.  No wonder he wanted every lady in America - along with every gay man - to see him strut his stuff.

Beyond this, however, there's little magic, I'm afraid, to Mike. Indeed there isn't much else, period; the movie is built around one facet of human anatomy in a way we haven't seen since the glory days of Raquel Welch and Jane Russell (at left, in The Outlaw, cantilevered in the bra Howard Hughes himself engineered for her). In fact without its precisely-placed phases of the moon, Magic Mike would fall apart completely; there's nothing holding it together but thongs. And even I grew slightly tired of the way Soderbergh and screenwriter Reid Carolin used Mr. Tatum's assets - oh, hell, his ass - to paste together an incompetent retread of just about every lost-innocence potboiler ever made.

Did I say "screenplay"? Sorry, I meant "round of flash cards." There is a plot to Magic Mike, but it is communicated - if that's the word - so ineptly that it's almost distracting from the flesh on display. Tatum's "Mike" plays mentor to a rookie dancer (literally "the Kid," Alex Pettyfer) who spirals down the drain of drug addiction even as Mike struggles to get his personal act - as opposed to his Act - together.  I know, who would have guessed?? All I can say is, it's a good thing the story is so familiar, because the mumbled repartee somehow never gets around to explicating key plot points, even if it's often wittily knowing - as is Soderbergh's direction and camerawork (which coats the Tampa landscape in a glow that's like a sweet, sunny syrup).

So everyone knows precisely what they're doing - they're just too cool to do much. For the record, Mr. Tatum comes off as a friendly, good-natured exhibitionist - which is precisely what you want in a stripper - although it's hard not to notice that he is a far more talented dancer than actor. Still, Tatum has begun to master the technique male stars like Brad Pitt long ago perfected, in which the core of a performance becomes the actor's witty escape from his own lack of range; so I certainly wouldn't bet against his rising star. The other actors are all quite likable in their low-key way (and they're certainly hot, even the amusingly dissolute Matthew McConaughey, who at 42 still has buns that deserve, and get, their own bow). Only the presence of Mr. Soderbergh - or rather the waste of his talent on this project - began to grate on my nerves.  He doesn't seem to realize that his flip, shot-with-one-hand-tied-behind-his-back technique is basically predicated on a string of micro-shocks, which perforce require some sort of viable content as a launch pad. Without an unspoken, earnest, slow-witted core to fuel the flight of his blithe contempt, Soderbergh's style quickly goes flaccid. Which is why in the end Magic Mike is only worth a rental - and even then only if the fast-forward button on your remote is in working order.

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