Sexual Healing

Naomi Fry on Magic Mike

Steven Soderbergh, Magic Mike, 2012, color film, 110 minutes. Magic Mike and Brooke (Channing Tatum and Cody Horn).

OK, PEOPLE, YOU CAN BREATHE EASY: Your guilty summer pleasure is finally here. The new Channing Tatum vehicle, endlessly referred to in recent weeks as “Steven Soderbergh’s highly anticipated male-stripper movie,” arrives in theaters today in a whirl of smooth, muscled torsos, hooded bedroom eyes, and thrusting and grinding pelvises. Loosely based on Tatum’s real-life, pre-breakout days as a member of an all-male revue, Magic Mike centers on the titular Mike, the thirty-year-old lady-killing centerpiece of a Tampa-based male stripping crew run by the drawling, genially Machiavellian former stripper Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Mike’s real passion—though, curiously, its practice isn’t once depicted in the movie—is for making custom furniture, and his hope is to turn this inclination into a business. But the economy, as he explains early on to one of his multiple bedmates, hasn’t hit “the sweet spot” yet. And so, putting his dreams aside, he details cars, works construction, and, most profitably, strips on the weekends, for throngs of howling “bachelorettes” and “cougars.” The movie’s animating conflict arrives in the form of the Kid (Alex Pettyfer)—a new recruit to the stripping business, who Mike grooms, Pygmalion-like—and his sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), a medical-claims administrator whose sharp tongue and slim hips position her immediately in the movie’s moral-compass/love-interest role.

The central question Magic Mike poses, at least initially, is an important one: What happens when passion—sexual, professional, sociable—gets traded in for money? And this, in fact, is a question that Soderbergh should be quite capable of answering, as his past work has often chronicled the ways in which desire is translated into the impersonal language of the contemporary American marketplace. Soderbergh’s films—whether their plot, characters, and budget are more conventionally Hollywoodesque or less so—have consistently been distinguished by a professionalized, even-keeled directorial detachment, so omnipresent that it often becomes a thematic preoccupation. His movies are both instances of and comments on a culture saturated with impersonality—a culture turned product.

This tendency has been evident from the first in Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), which examined, with cool detachment, people who are able to engage with one another only through the mediation of a video camera, through the documentary-like Girlfriend Experience (2009), in which a high-class call girl struggles to build herself as a “brand” as 2008’s financial markets collapse around her, all the way up to Contagion (2011), where individual lives are effortlessly swept away by a cruel, abstract, global virus. And now, too, Magic Mike, which—despite its superficial lasciviousness, the expanses of bare, toned flesh it exhibits—isn’t really a movie about sex. Rather, it’s a movie about “sex,” and it goes some way toward depicting how particularized, felt experiences can be converted into abstract currency—of bland social banter, of narrative cliché, of spectacle, of money.

But although the movie’s trajectory inexorably, and predictably, leads toward Mike’s refusal to continue being converted into a tradable commodity—in a pivotal moment, he insists to Brooke, “I am not my lifestyle!”—the snag is that we’re only interested in Mike because of this lifestyle, certainly not because of his life. In other words, the movie still dares us to ogle Channing Tatum’s abdominal muscles even as it tries to sell us on his desire to leave the nightlife behind him to make coffee tables and go on monogamous dates with Brooke. And while God knows there’s nothing wrong with Channing Tatum’s abs, the earnest blandness of this rom-comish turn does disappoint. For all his vulgarity, the franker representative of Magic Mike’s true ethos may very well be the Kid, who, as the movie ends, is just beginning his reign as the new stripper king of Florida. In a speech that the movie seems to suggest is misguided, but that, in fact, reflects the credo that covertly animates it from the get-go, the Kid expresses his gratitude to Mike for showing him the ropes in the world of stripping. “I have money,” he says. “I can fuck who I wanna fuck. I have freedom. Thanks to you.” God bless America.

Magic Mike opens in theaters in the US on Friday, June 29.