A movie about male strippers might not seem like the obvious choice for Steven Soderbergh, a director whose film choices veer from the obscure to the mainstream and everywhere in between, but this isn't really a movie about male strippers; it's more to do with male anxiety. And very good it is too.
Channing Tatum stars as the eponymous Mike, a man approaching his thirties who does a lot without achieving a great deal. He does roofing work, stripping (with a cut of the profits) and has ambitions to custom build coffee tables. He's good at what he does, but has no emotional connection in his life, although he has a friend with whom he can have sex. Adam is a young guy sleeping on his sister's sofa and taking casual work as a roofer (which is where he meets Mike). From there it is a short step and a jump to joining Mike on stage, where his initial shyness soon wears off, and he becomes a hit with the women who come to see men with six packs strip down to their posing pouch.
The third member of this unholy trinity is Dallas (Matthew McConoughey) who runs the club, takes the profits and treats his boys as if he were their father (for better and for worse). He is a preening, strutting narcissist who loves the attention, the power and the money. He's like Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights (a film which this resembles in more ways than one), kind to those within his circle, but his attention should not be confused with unconditional love. The outsider who proves the catalyst is Brooke (Cody Horn), the sister on whose sofa Adam is sleeping, and who finds the male stripping thing curious but unappealing; though she does like Mike.
The first half of the film is the best. We are offered a perspective of male stripping from both sides of the stage, its glitter but also its superficiality. Adam has the illusion of joining a family when he is taken under Dallas's wing, with Mike as his older brother, but in this world where you are only as valuable as your strut and sizzle, where men wax, shave and pump, where the hugging and backslapping and declarations of brotherly love seem either false, or else masking a more erotic attraction – then the ground beneath your feet can never be stable.
Soderbergh's success is in making a film which is – for most of the time – fun to watch, but which also makes it clear that the pleasure for the participants is skin deep. It is a little ironic that the film is being marketed to exactly the same audience as the women who come to the show in the film. Having seen the film with an audience of young women all prepared to scream, giggle and be titillated, I can only guess that they found it a disappointment, judging by the silence after the initial shrieks. My main criticism of the film is that it goes on too long, There are sub plots along the way which are designed to put obstacles in the path of true love (which we know is inevitable anyway), but the net result is a slackening of emotional tension somewhere round the 90 minute mark.
On the plus side, Channing Tatum is a revelation; charming, handsome, fun, and a great mover. You can see why Brooke might go for him. And she in turn is excellent – not just because she's beautiful (which she is), but because she makes her role central to the film, when she could so easily have been surplus to requirements. The banter between her and Tatum is one of the highlights of the film. The other top performance comes from McConoughey who has finally learnt how to choose decent films after years of doing the exact opposite. Now well into his 40s, he not only has a body for women to drool over (literally on this occasion), but he has the kind of looks which are ideally suited to playing a preening tosser.
The main difficulty the film may have is that those who will want to go and see it, will probably not enjoy it; while those who would enjoy it, won't want to go and see it. I suggest you give it a go.
By Phil Raby
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