Magic Mike, 2012
“Difficult texts: Try to give the reader a new way to think about the film.”
Magic Mike (2012) raked in a gross profit of well over $100 million, but its public response varied from “crazy good” to “truly terrible” . Although some may assume the variance would be due to the gender of who was doing the reviewing, it could also be explained by the assumption that maybe some people simply took it for a ‘dance flick’ before they walked into the cinema. For all intents and purposes for the marketing team, this film was exactly that. It’s basically a bachelorette party without all of the connotations associated with actually going to the strippers. But, if you refrain from fast-forwarding the awkward talking to skip to the shirtless grinding, you get to experience a very different film.
One obvious piece of information that supports this occurs before you even get the chance to be distracted by Matthew McConaughey’s chiseled abs. This is a Steven Soderbergh film; directed, filmed and edited by. Soderbergh, the man responsible for the Ocean’s Eleven (2001) trilogy, Pleasantville (1998), Erin Brockovich (2000), Contagion (2011), Traffic (2000) and I’m Not There (2007). Even with just this handful of works, it is strikingly apparent that Soderbergh has an exceptional mixed-bag of talent. So what is this stylistic chameleon – an artist known for his complex characters and left-of-centre narrative structure – doing simply holding back the purple velvet curtains to Channing Tatum’s boxers? I think it’s safe to assume that this was never going to be a naughty ‘dance flick’.
Mike Lane (Tatum) is a Tampa roof-tiler by day, and Magic Mike, King of Tampa, by night. Straying not too far from an almost vigilante character profile, Mike keeps his scandalous night-time activities quiet. It’s a fun fast-cash gig to help him fund his true passion for building recycled furniture. When the new kid from his day job, Adam (Pettyfer), runs into him doing his other business however, he decides to share the limelight. The plot stems basically from this encounter; Adam becoming attracted to the sex, fame and substances that come with male stripping, and Mike beginning to resent the business for the same reasons.
Despite the nights filled with loud music, flashing lights and screaming women, Mike’s life is relatively normal. He deals with financial struggles, commitment issues, work dramas, graceless encounters with girls and disputes with friends that a typical 30-year old man would. As he struggles with his sense of self and the frustration builds with Dallas (McConaughey), the tension between both sides of his world intensifies. The impending sense that ‘something has to give’ is reflected in the scene styling as the film progresses; we see less and less of the glamour in Mike’s life and more of the destruction and the disappointment. The disparity between his job and his life is expressed not only in Reid Carolin‘s writing, but Soderbergh’s use of lighting and style of editing.
The second club scene opens looking out to the audience, the big Hollywood stage lights out of focus. Adam and Ken (Bomer) enter from stage left and right in silhouette where they begin their comical ‘cowboy’ routine. Wearing Stetsons, gun-holsters and little else, Adam begins his solo-routine as the camera pans out over the crowd facing the stage. We see the set full of props, the flattering lights and the applauding women. At this 40 minute mark is the first time someone from Mike’s real world enters the club; we take on the perspective of Brooke (Horn), Adam’s concerned older sister. Mike’s demeanor immediately changes, he’s nervous and unsure of himself, despite Brooke being his unlikely love interest. Cue McConaughey – he addresses the crowd with his smooth cheesy lines to introduce Mike. Mike then comes on to the stage and (very impressively) performs a solo routine complete with strip tease and dry humping a lucky audience member up and down the stage. This person couldn’t possibly be the fumbling Brando-subtype we saw just moments ago, could it? Under the stage lights, in that perfect purple tint, everything is flawless: The men, the routines, their lives. The film is edited in a way that is so typical of the dance genre that the storyline begins to fall away and it’s easy to believe that this is just a movie about happy little strippers. This little daydream ends abruptly as we come back to the real world where money and taxes and banks exist.
When Mike goes to apply for a bank loan to start up his furniture business, the entire space is flooded by a stale office-yellow. The scene begins mid-awkward-conversation from an even more awkward camera angle. Neither Mike nor the flustered bank-teller is entirely in focus or in the frame. The scene is overexposed and there is minimal use of shot- reverse-shots, considering the amount of conversation. He appears significantly more conservative than the audience is used to, dressed in a suit and costume-glasses. Despite the professional façade, he tries his seductive charms that work so well for him on the stage, but his crumpled dollar bills are rejected by the girlish lender.
All of a sudden the audience is left feeling sorry for this poor beautiful man who can’t get a loan because his ‘cash-based income’ has ruined his credit rating. He becomes defensive and stumbles on his words, closing the encounter with an ever so eloquent “I read the papers, the only thing that is distressed is y’all.” … what does that even mean, Mike? The dialogue is so amateurish, childish even, compared to the bold and self-assured language that’s used inside the club. He gets agitated that he isn’t taken seriously by this institution that embodies the normalcy of real-life that he so desperately wants to be a part of.
Basically, any location that isn’t on the stage is shot in that musty yellow haze, as if it’s been left in the sun too long. The ‘all-natural’ lighting paired with an unconventional style of editing, such as minimal use of reverse shots or lack of underscore during lengthy dialogue scenes, is so foreign to the predictable musical/dance genre that it seems wrong or out of place. However, it’s really the scenes of this fantasy club world that are intentionally inapposite for this Soderbergh dramedy. The use of disparate styles for the different on-screen spaces reiterates Mike’s dissatisfaction with this make-believe world. He’s looking for something of substance, a career in the real world, and this life of glitter and leather is keeping him from that.
Soderbergh’s use of two opposing cinematography styles is to tell this (slightly delayed) coming-of-age story about Mike; a man who’s growing out of one phase of his life and struggling to break through to the other side. The naked men are just a bonus.