Friday, August 20, 2021

Channingography, part 1: Magic Mike

This is the beginning of a series in which I watch movies with Channing Tatum. This guy hasn't been on my radar in like forever. I've seen "Jupiter Ascending" a while back, but nothing else I can remember. What I do remember is having seen a trailer to "22 Jump Street" in cinema back in 2014 and filed it under cheap trash. For a reason I can't even remember I read a glowing review of "Magic Mike", and I decided to check the movie out. I watched it, and only after I finished watching it I realized that I actually watched the sequel, "Magic Mike XXL". So I went back and also watched the original. 
"Magic Mike" is a story about male strippers. The titular Mike is our protagonist, but he doesn't take center stage; there's room enough for other abs and pairs of biceps to go around. I was very sceptical, I have to admit. Tatum is just the kind of actor starring in the kinds of movies that usually aren't for me, and male strippers isn't a subject matter I was particularily engaged in. 
Boy, was I wrong on all counts. Let me start this journey on the incredible filmography of Channing Tatum with you, kicking it off with a lot of male nudity. 
"Magic Mike" and "Magic Mike XXL" are supposedly with the same characters and telling one big story, but really, these two movies couldn't be more different in style and content, despite showing a lot of nude male bodies in stripper poses. Let's do the original "Magic Mike" first with a quick synposis. 
Mike is working a lot of smaller jobs in order to save up and fulfill his dream of owning a custom furniture business. On a roofing job, he gets to know the new kid and recruits him into the "Cock Rocking Kings of Tampa", a stripper crew that has seen its best days and in which he makes most of his money. The crew is lead by Dallas, played by a scene-stealing Matthew McConaughey, who wants to take them to Miami to play in the big leagues. The new kid quickly falls for the allure of being desired and gets into drugs, while Mike has a crisis of confidence of whether or not he wants this live anymore. 
There is a certain drama around all of this, as the men are objectified by the audience, not getting any younger and dragged in by their own inner demons. Dallas especially, who earnestly considers himself as a benefactor to the others, is a toxic influence. He's not so bad as pimps go, but in the end, he is desperate to prolong his life, basically, trying to fight off aging and staying in this business with the dream of going big in Miami, which is heavily implied to be a pipe dream and a road to disaster. It's Mike's emancipation from Dallas and the Cock Rocking Kings of Tampa and the associated life-style that's the defining character conflict of the movie. 
This is a bit weird since Mike doesn't possess any flaws. He's not young and naive, he's not bitter, there aren't any skeletons in his closets and he doesn't have bad character traits dragging others down. He's just a guy trying to get in on the American Dream who has no problem prostituting himself, who's really good at it and enjoying that, maybe just a tad too much.
The darkness of the setting is well hidden below the surface, never really bubbling up, always more implied than real. The worst thing that happens is that the kid has a bad trip and Mike loses his savings. These are stakes, basically. One of the side characters also needs to break off a performance after a chubby audience member throws herself a bit too hard in his arms, but it doesn't seem to be permanent. The air hanging over all of this is one of finality: everyone knows that they can't keep this up much longer, and none of them aside from Mike has an exit plan. The existence of that plan is what Dallas resents and what drives a wedge between the two. 
In the end, Mike makes a cut. The Cock Rocking Kings of Tampa move in one direction, Mike in the other. The end. 
It's a very enjoyable movie, well written and with great performances. Tatum himself as Mike is a bit of a cipher in just how open he is. There are no hidden depths to Mike; he's just who he says he is. That makes a contrast from the kid - who's much more susceptible to darker influences than Mike - and especially Dallas. But over long stretches of the movie, Mike is more an observer to the story, watching things happening to him rather than acting himself. 
Of course, that's the whole point. The one flaw that Mike needs to overcome is to make a break, take a leap into the unknown and to take charge. And that's what he ultimately does. It's unclear what will become of him, but one thing is clear: He'll not become Dallas, the fate that seemed marked out for him in the beginning of the movie. 
So, where to go from there into a sequel? It's not like "Mike's furniture business" is a great hook for a movie, and since he broke with the seedy underworld of male strippers, it doesn't make too much sense to simply go into a repeat of the same story. 
The genius of "Magic Mike XXL", which I maybe enjoyed even more than "Magic Mike" - and I enjoyed that one already - lies in simply eschewing the need of a plot in the traditional sense entirely. When the movie opens, we meet Mike in his almost perfect Americana small business existence, worrying about paying bills but being a great enterpreneur und general nice guy. We also learn that he misses dancing in a hilarious number he performs solo in his work area (seriously, never has a boring machine been more sexy). 
So he checks out the old crew, who are now operating without Dallas by driving around in a modified RV and performing wherever the wind takes them; not a failed existence like it was implied in "Magic Mike" but rather just another version of the American Dream. Age has caught up with them, and they decided to make one final tour, eclipsing in a gigantic male stripper contest. Mike asks to tag along for one last exhilerating round of performances. There's no conflict, they are glad he's back, and it's off on the road. 
The rest of he movie is just the barest insinuation of plot connecting different dance numbers in wildly varying locations that have nothing off the seedy look of Tampa from the first movie. No, sir, this movie is a musical. There's just no one singing. And the movie is proud of this. 
Seriously, the dance numbers ARE the movie. Where in "Magic Mike", they were used as character building moments (especially one dance Mike performs with almost palpable aggression towards Dallas), here, they performances are why we're here. The life of the strippers is carefree. They relax on the beack between performances and have a fun road trip. They're feeding of a network of mysterious people Mike knows like he's a secret agent. 
The message the movie relentlessly drills into the audience is simple. These guys dance to make the ladies happy. They are basically angels, coming down to draw them from their dreary daily routines and to conjure up a smile on their faces. They are very explicit with this, especially in a hilarious scene in which one of them performs for a dour gas station attendant to get in the right groove ("make her happy!" they yell at him by way of encouragment). 
This relentless joy and optimism provides a clean break with the previous movie. 100% less drama, and about 90% more enjoyment in the dance numbers is the, sorry the pun, magic formula that the sequel brings to the table for a wildly different viewing experience. 
There's also no character development. Mike leaves the movie exactly like he began it, and the others as well. Weirdly, it's much more of an ensemble piece; the rest of the crew get much more to do and fleshed out. Everyone of them is a clear character; not that they'd have arcs, it's just that I know who these people are. Except, maybe, for the one guy of the crew who needs to relearn the mission statement of making women happy. 
It's astonishing HOW they make women happy, though. Where the first movie hinted at the problem of objectification of the strippers, this time, the objectification is the point. As I said, they're angels, and they're here to dance for our sins, or something like that. It's their mission to be gawked at. 
And that's where it hit me. These movies would be impossible with female strippers in the lead roles, "Magic Mike XXL" especially, but "Magic Mike" as well. All the women in the audience are not there to get turned on, they're there to have fun. They are cheering and laughing and having quite a good time, but it's never implied that they want to fuck these people or that the money they're spending gives them the right to touch them at inappropriate places. "Magic Mike" actually starts with Dallas telling the audience where they aren't allowed to touch. 
This makes these movies more innocent than, say, "Hustlers". And don' thinkt that you could only enjoy them as a woman. I had a damn good time watching Tatum and the others perform on stage. It's not sexy, but then, stripping never is. But with the element of power relations removed that defines the relationship of a male audience with female strippers, it's just damn fun to watch.


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