The "Magic Mike" Complex: Why Can't a Straight Guy Like a Movie About Male Strippers?

A cinephile's insecurities and frustrations stemming from one of the years's most divisive movies.

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Complex Original

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An examination into a cinephile's insecurities and frustrations stemming from one of the years's most divisive, and all-around best, movies.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

At some point today, you'll be able to find me at the Best Buy down the block from Complex headquarters, cash in hand and sights set on one product in particular: a DVD copy of Magic Mike, the mid-summer hit starring Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey. Yes, mostly shirtless Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey. And, yes again, playing male strippers whose abs bring sixes of Budweiser to mind and whose on-stage gyrations don't even flirt with subtlety. And, yes, one final affirmation: I am a heterosexual male.

The purchase is going to play out in one of two ways. The strongest possibility is that the cashier, whether it's a guy or a girl, will disinterestedly grab the DVD from my hand, wave it over the price-check sensor, and then oh-so-casually glance down at it. Then, after a quick double-take, he or she will look at me with a this-dude-can't-be-serious screwface that stops just short of complete disrespect, lest they offend a paying customer. The second potential scenario will involve yours truly placing the DVD on the cashier's counter and then immediately playing with my iPhone to avoid making eye contact with the employee. Since I'm feeling rather confident at the moment, the former option seems the most likely.

Not that I don't understand why a Best Buy worker will leer at me with equal parts confusion and suppressed laughter. Just look at Magic Mike's box cover: It's a shot of Tatum, McConaughey, and beefcake co-stars Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, and Alex Pettyfer standing confidently with shirts off, muscles accentuated, and wearing only black ties above their waists. Oh, and there's also a quote from NBC-TV critic Manny De La Rosa that states, "Fun, hot and sexy!" One user comment on the Best Buy website even says it's "definitely one for the girls." But that's no reason for people to act like I'm not purchasing the latest film from acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh but, instead, the latest Chippendale's concert disc. Or, for our international readers, the newest home video extravaganza from the Chips' Aussie counterparts, "Thunder from Down Under."

How do I know about Australia's professional man-a-thon? Because I've been to Las Vegas before, and I've seen the billboards advertising their overpriced shows. Furthermore, I've been to Sin City with female friends who've attended their shows to see for themselves just what exactly is "down under," even though my boys and I couldn't care less.

Here's the thing: There's no acceptable reason why I should be thinking this heavily about a simple, innocent DVD purchase. This is coming from a person who bought both Human Centipede movies without a moment's hesitation or self-reflection. So why am I so preoccupied with defensiveness about Magic Mike? We live in a society that's suffocated by sexual insecurity. No matter how many tough-guy rappers come out and give Frank Ocean props, the truth remains that most men don't have any interest in watching something that presents other guys as sexual objects, no matter the context. In their eyes, the act of viewing Magic Mike is on par with walking down Greenwich Village's Christopher Street wearing nothing but a G-string and a homemade sign that reads, "Come and get me!" In reality, though, the critically adored film exhibits a director at the top of his game; recapturing the loose, whip-smart comedy he'd previously executed in lighthearted flicks like Ocean's Eleven and The Informant, Soderbergh oversees a pleasurable ride. Even when drugs and modest violence are introduced, Magic Mike remains non-threatening.


Most importantly, it's welcoming to viewers of either gender. It's too bad that the only straight men who'll accept that outlook are either older film critics or adventurous cinephiles. Though being part of the latter group requires thick skin, lest juvenile barbs like "And I bet you loved Sex and the City," or, "Next, you'll tell me to rent Saving Ryan's Privates," leave you feeling softer than gelatin.

Give this experiment a try: Take a stroll on a crowded, urban sidewalk, randomly stop 10 guys, and ask them if they've seen Magic Mike. If they aren't initially aware of the film, tell them that it's about male strippers. See how many men instantly dismiss the movie with either a laugh or a mean mug. If you're feeling extra ambitious, follow that question up with a similar one about Brokeback Mountain. Or, better yet, if they have a "celebrity man crush" that they're willing to admit.

Back in July, when Magic Mike opened in theaters, I went to see it by myself the Saturday afternoon after its Friday opening. I was wracked with unwarranted guilt. My rationale was, if I catch a matinee inside a theater that none of my guy friends ever visit, then I'll avoid hearing insults from the close-minded peanut gallery. At the worst, a few groups of teenage girls will see me, giggle amongst themselves, and keep it moving with the giddy foresight that Channing Tatum will soon be dancing half-naked before them. My insecurities are always in the red zone, but some quickly passing jabs from girls half my age won't ever break me. If I can withstand my 6-year-old niece telling me I need to get married—bless her scarily mature young soul—I can endure anything from the opposite sex.

Once it was my turn to buy a ticket, the middle-aged woman behind the register indifferently asked which movie I wanted to see. My response: "One for Magic Mike, please." Her instantaneous response: "You said, 'One'?" As I nodded my head to answer yes, she gave me one hell of a condescending, look-at-this-pansy side-eye. The obnoxious encounter concluded with, "OK, then. Enjoy the show."

And, not just to spite her, that's exactly what I did. One of the year's best movies so far, Magic Mike is so much more than the "Channing Tatum plays a male stripper" movie. Based loosely on the actor's own pre-Hollywood experiences as a dancer, it's a briskly paced and entertaining hybrid of Paul Thomas Anderson's porn industry drama Boogie Nights (with its insider access and rich, flawed characters) and vintage Robert Altman cinema (with its humor deriving from naturalistic conversations). As the titular MVP of the Tampa, FL, gentleman's club Xquisite, Tatum gives a charming, funny, and genuine performance; after proving his gift for goofball comedy in this year's also first-rate 21 Jump Street, the 32-year-old star shines brightly throughout Magic Mike, establishing himself as a performer who's as versatile as he is unfairly ridiculed. When you're a former Abercrombie & Fitch model who earned his stripes (and a place in countless female fantasies) playing in sappy crap like Dear John and Step Up, you're bound to get put down by other (jealous) men.

It's the perfect complement for Tatum that his showiest Magic Mike co-star is Matthew McConaughey, a skilled actor whose chiseled looks land him on more "Sexiest Man Alive" lists than Oscar ballots. He's seen and heard his fair share of film critic disses over the years, yet he's used the vitriol to make 2012 a personal whirlwind of superb performances in grade-A movies. In the underrated, NC-17 black comedy Killer Joe, for instance, McConaughey ferociously portrays one of the year's most memorable characters, a dirty cop who moonlights as a contract killer and brutally assaults women with fried chicken. But that sadistic use of poultry pales in comparison, performance wise, to McConaughey's dynamite Magic Mike turn as scheming Xquisite owner Dallas, a flamboyant showman who's also quietly dangerous. If Magic Mike had a public perception better than "that male stripper movie," his work as Dallas would make McConaughey a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor recognition come January, when the Academy Award nominations are announced. As it stands, though, he's a long shot.

Together, with Mr. Soderbergh as their guide, Tatum and McConaughey elevate Magic Mike beyond lightweight fluff and into excellence. The fact that droves of excited women packed the nearest multiplexes this summer to hoot and holler as Tatum bumps and grinds to Ginuwine's "Pony," or Manganiello humps one enviable gal while wearing only a fireman's hat and suspenders, shouldn't take away from that excellence. It's the reason why my friends have tirelessly mocked me for the last three months for watching, and subsequently recommending, Magic Mike. Little do they know, of course, that Soderbergh stages the stripteases as tongue-in-cheek comedy sequences, not overcooked seductions a la Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls. When Manganiello's character, cheekily named Big Dick Richie, attempts to hoist a potbellied woman in the air, he struggles to do so, and the look on his face screams, "Call a tow truck and a chiropractor, stat!"

Speaking of Big Dick Richie, kudos to Magic Mike screenwriter Reid Carolin for having the shameless gall to use such an audacious name. While talking to friends after seeing the movie, I was shocked at how matter-of-factly I cited Manganiello's on-screen moniker. "Oh, and then there's Big Dick Richie," I'd say, with enthusiasm, "and he has some of the funniest scenes." You'd think I'd instead say, "Big-D Richie," like a Caucasian replacing the N-word with "ninja." My comfort with acknowledging Richie's large member should be directly credited to the filmmakers for disarming the character's overt sexuality. The scene in which he manually enlarges his joint with a pump is played for laughs, and, once you get over the initial surprise, it's a hoot.

Another thing that my pals don't realize is that Tatum and his fellow actors exude a natural camaraderie and easygoing chemistry, captured through several wonderfully executed moments of backstage banter and pre-dance rituals. It's difficult for a movie to have any completely likable characters—Magic Mike has at least seven. So what if they just so happen to spend the bulk of the film's running time in minimal attire? Whenever they're on stage, the film's manly movers and shakers may be strutting their disrobed stuff, but they are fully aware that what they're doing is totally ridiculous. It's all part of a show that makes the women happy. Ultimately, the characters, and, concurrently, the actors themselves, are not ashamed of it.


The same goes for Tatum, McConaughey, Soderbergh, and everyone else involved with Magic Mike—all of whom have openly discussed how much fun the shoot was, and how proud they are of the finished product. In Entertainment Weekly's Magic Mike roundtable cover story, Tatum reflected on the shoot: "Actors, generally, if we finish our scenes early one day, we go home. Especially during the dances—we were there cheering everybody on." It's easy to see why.

Fellas, take a look at the women whom sirs Tatum and McConaughey lie in bed with every night when they're not on a movie set: Jenna Dewan Tatum and Camila Alves. If dudes who can pull chicks that fiercely hot aren't embarrassed by Magic Mike, why should any guys who hook up with fours and fives at local watering holes have a problem? If anything, this flick should be used as a motivational tool. The accompanying sales pitch: "Take notes, fellas, and maybe one day you, too, can get a girl who resembles Jenna Dewan Tatum."

Those same male friends of mine—the ones who'll no doubt chastise me for writing this piece in the first place—will never understand what makes Soderbergh's film so uniquely memorable until they get over their insecurities, sit down with attention undivided, and watch Magic Mike for themselves. Sadly that won't happen anytime soon. Not as long as Channing Tatum and company grace the DVD and Blu-ray fronts with their abdominals on blast. They much prefer Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman's quote on the cover of my The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) DVD, the one that reads, "Would have the Marquis de Sade gagging into his popcorn… Could be the sickest B-movie ever made." And just wait until they hear about the naked chicks in that movie! So what if they're on their knees not for pleasure but because that makes it easier for their mouths to be surgically grafted onto another lady's derriere? As long as there's no dudes in birthday suits mounting chairs in the background, it's all good—right?

This weekend, as I watch Magic Mike alone, at home, appreciating its many cinematic strengths, I'll imagine a world in which all hetero guys are able to find the rich humor in Big Dick Richie and his penis pump. Or the sight of Matthew McConaughey rocking a spandex belly shirt and coaching a dancing newbie in a touchy-feely, slightly grab-ass fashion. And in this dreamland, I could buy a DVD at Best Buy and not feel like I'm sitting front row at a Chris Rock stand-up show wearing an "I Love Mitt Romney" T-shirt.

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Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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