I mean, it obviously is kind of a regular thirst watch too. But if you learn anything from this one, it’s that sex isn’t worthless. In fact, you can even assign a dollar amount to it. I’m about 98% sure Oscar Wilde wasn’t picturing Steven Soderbergh’s (“Contagion”) 2012 film when he wrote, “Everything is about sex. Except for sex, which is about power.” But there’s, like, a 2% chance that maybe he was.
I was 13 years old when “Magic Mike” came out, and it was always mentioned with giggling and blushing. People went to see it as a joke or a silly night out. My mom bought the film’s Blu-Ray for one of her friends as a gag gift (don’t make me make the joke). Beyond that angle, it really was a major cultural moment for straight ladies, alongside “Fifty Shades” and Beatlemania. It was that third-wave feminist them-versus-us thing: the idea that men should be objectified for once.
It’s a sentiment the film understands. Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, “Interstellar”), head of the Tampa strip club at the center of the film, galvanizes his stripper disciples with the prayer, “You are the husband they never had, the dreamboat guy that never came along.” Believe it or not, though, it goes deeper than that — any time anyone brings this movie up, I have to defend its cinematic integrity. The repressed housewives in the movie theater recliners were probably wondering why the camera kept cutting back to the female lead, Brooke (Cody Horn, “End of Watch”), when the titular Mike (Channing Tatum, “21 Jump Street”) was on stage. I’m sure they were thinking, “Why are we watching Magic Mike apply for a loan? Is there an indie acoustic song playing over this beach party right now? What are we watching?”
Because, while yes, the movie is sexy and fun, it’s also dramatic. The filmmakers clearly respect the story they’re working with. You can tell it’s a Soderbergh flick, with the same sheen of “cool” you see painted on the “Ocean’s” films. The lighting is beautiful, the framing is dynamic — a lot of great headroom, but not like a film student who just learned about the rule of thirds — and everybody loves a good tracking shot. But it’s not just Soderbergh: The choreography is incredible, and the acting — particularly from Tatum — is really natural and believable, bringing more heart into a stripper movie than you might think.
The dancers’ lives appear to be decadent. Mike (Tatum) makes enough to afford a beautiful house and fund his burgeoning dream to design custom furniture with $13,000 in the bank. What draws Adam (Alex Pettyfer, “Beastly”), also known as “The Kid,” is the “women, money, and … good time(s).” The typical things you’d read on a stripper forum about sexual assault and learning to trust men aren’t there, because, well, it’s a different ball game. Not to say that straight women aren’t capable of mistreating sex workers but, according to the film, the men still have the power. They don’t abuse it, but it’s theirs nonetheless.
The spiral into chaos at the center of the film revolves around the power passed between hands and g-strings. The sex they simulate is a transaction. Sure, it makes people feel good, but it’s about power on either side. The dancers and the audience all want to feel wanted — what’s more powerful than someone’s eyes on you? That’s what any customer at a strip club pays for. That’s why most clubs make their dancers pay for their time onstage, because it’s valuable capital that a lot of people want to get at. Dancers might not make money for a good while after they begin. In some places, like Detroit, performers are required to have cabaret licenses, colloquially known as “dance cards.” While they’re intended to ensure that all dancers are of age, it also keeps people in the industry; a few employers might be scared off when that license shows up in their background check. The whole world of stripping is about power.
McConaughey’s performance captures this beautifully. When Dallas watches Adam cross the stage for the first time, he’s quiet and calculating, thinking, “How can I make money off of this kid?” So much of the film goes into nearly literal dick-measuring contests, like a scene early on where the men try to convince Adam to rub lotion on one of their legs, playing chicken to see just how much they can make the ingenue do.
What’s most fascinating about “Magic Mike” is probably what it left in its wake. As more men come forward with body image issues, I can’t help but think about what all these dehydrated actors are going through and, at the same time, perpetuating. I can’t be the only Gen Z-er who remembers all the cringey Vines of teen boys in snapbacks body-rolling to Pretty Ricky. In fact, my high school crush once dressed up as Magic Mike for Halloween. He was 15. I feel like I don’t have to say too much after that.
I don’t know what professional dancers have to say about “Magic Mike” or “Zola” or “Hustlers” for that matter. Honestly, I’m exhausted by all those “(insert occupation) reacts to (aforementioned occupation) in movies!” videos, but if anyone reading this is familiar with this line of work, I’d actually be fascinated to hear what it’s actually like.
My point is that this film is actually really fantastic. I kept getting whiplash between the thrilling scenes of flirting with strangers and the crushing loneliness of Mike calling a friend with benefits on his 2012 iPhone. If “Magic Mike” were a Grimm fairy tale, the moral of the story would be: Yes, sex is fun, but please don’t lose $10,000 worth of drugs at a sorority, please?
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.