The Strawberry Criterion: Magic Mike

“It is to be all made of fantasy, All made of passion and all made of wishes, All adoration, duty, and observance, All humbleness, all patience and impatience, All purity, all trial, all observance.”

-Shakespeare, As You Like It

“Fuck that mirror like you mean it.”

-Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike

The artist’s prerogative, like the magician’s, like the stripper’s, is to sell illusion as the actual, to carve an interstice of fantasy in the drab wall of reality, a breach into which an audience, if it so chooses, can slip. Or so goes the story of Magic Mike. Conceived as a fictionalized retelling of the time Channing Tatum spent as an exotic dancer in Tampa, Florida, Stephen Soderbergh’s film practices a wily sleight of hand, a promise of empty style that delivers an abundance of substance. Call it deceptive packaging. By selling itself as mindless objectification, Magic Mike positions itself to comment on (and backhandedly celebrate) that objectification, not to mention America’s other grandly destructive delusions: the economic, the sexual, the existential and the spiritual. Its chosen point of access to these complexities is the titular Magic Mike (Tatum), a self-deluded stripper and–more important–frustrated carpenter who aspires to produce custom coffee tables out of hurricane debris. In less capable hands, this conceit would be a total derailment, a spectacle of pointless exhibitionism. In Soderbergh’s, Magic Mike becomes a film that recalls Altman in its breadth, Hitchcock in its interpretability. It is one of the best films of the decade thus far, a fantasy fully realized.

Like a Floridified version of John Updike’s Rabbit Run, Magic Mike functions, for Tatum, as a heartfelt anthropological survey of the working class life that art allowed him to escape. What if Channing Tatum never left Tampa? it asks. The answer to that question is inarticulate and discursive and weird, but it’s one that chimes scarily of truth in relation to life in post-recession America, the trapped-ness of it. Mike finds himself stuck between two charged poles in the stripper subculture: a megalomaniacal veteran named Dallas, played by Matthew McConaughey, and a green, mumbly newcomer known only as The Kid (Alexander Pettyfer). The Kid embodies the reluctant initiate Mike once was, Dallas the crazed archetype he is fast becoming. Mike is equally drawn to both and neither. Like Tampa, Florida, it is a painful place to exist in. Anyone ever shackled by circumstance should empathize.

“Werepanther Fire Co.”

As formula demands, Mike meets and falls for Brooke, The Kid’s overprotective and rightly skeptical sister. Their courtship is the film’s most contrived component, awkward and devoid of on-screen chemistry, but their inevitable union is forged, redeemably, in the kiln of despair. In fact, none of the frivolity that occurs in Magic Mike occurs without an intensely felt underpinning of sadness, sacrifice, self-loss. From the two horny sorority girls to Olivia Munn’s calloused psychologist, the pathos behind the human propensity to indulge fantasy is always present, the fulcrum on which public persona teeters. Americans are quick to immerse themselves in who they are not, and that immersion unavoidably taxes who they are, limits who they could otherwise be. This is a keenly melancholy message for a very fun stripper movie to express. A warped kind of genius is required to make this sequence play as sad.

In the climactic scene, Magic Mike straps himself to a harness and levitates over the stage, his body spinning until the speed of rotation renders him unrecognizable. The action recalls a cocooned organism railing against its chrysalis, wiggling simultaneously toward life and, by extension, death. For Mike, the performance is an exorcism and an exercise in futility. When he stops spinning he’s right where he was before, on stage, the stripper, actor, artist, magician, the self subsumed by fantasies of others. Realizing this, he walks off the stage. He relinquishes his role, transforming the empty stage and cinema screen into a type of mirror for the audience. It’s a black mirror, one that reflects those who propagate this fantasy darkly back. For an instant, the audience is forced to look, to gaze on whatever harsh reality it has been actively seeking to avoid. It stares into the mirror, then it looks away.

Final Strawberry Verdict: 4.75 Strawberries out of 5