In preparation for the 1 July release of Magic Mike XXL, Nathaniel has chosen for this week’s delayed episode of Hit Me with Your Best Shot none other than Magic Mike itself. 21st Century American cinema’s most colorful, smartly-lit and -staged tribute to the form of the mostly naked male body.
Which is why I naturally enough picked this as the shot I wanted to talk about:
Thing is, director/cinematographer/editor/craft services provider Steven Soderbergh didn’t have it in him, by 2012, to make anything as straightforward as a crowd-pleaser about strippers. Which is why, right below the surface, Magic Mike functions more more consistently as a fable of self-exploitation, and the body as commodity in the economic free fall of the 2010s. It’s a film in which Your Financial Needs glower over the shoulders of every character all the time, and it was too hard for me to resist picking an image that made that theme as literal as it could ever be. Though at least the sign is nonchalantly hanging off to the side, instead of flashing neon, or something.
The action, meanwhile, finds Mike (Channing Tatum) attempting to secure a bank loan for his real dream, which astonishingly enough, isn’t stripping at all, but building artisanal coffee tables out of reclaimed industrial scrap. Look at him there, in his suit and tie. It is the most incongruous look Mike sports anywhere in the film (and, I am tempted so say, the most incongruous look in Tatum’s film career). Mike is a casual, hang-out sort of guy. That is his appeal as a friend, and it’s a big part of his appeal as an objectified hunk of sexy, sweaty man-meat: he’s the most approachable and unthreatening of implausibly perfect physical specimens.
And yet here he is, wearing a disguise of Prim Business Man, Do You See My Smart Little Glasses and Everything? Tatum doesn’t play up any physical discomfort with the outfit, but it’s still an unnatural fit with everything else he wears (and/or removes) over the course of the movie, so even if Mike can play dress-up without complaint, it still feels odd and off-putting to us. It is still, in fact, using his body as a tool to make money, only by wrapping it up in wool instead of rubbing it down with baby oil, and the fantasy is wealth and respectability instead of cartoon sexuality. And it doesn’t convince the nice banker lady to trust him with a penny. So even as he buries his personality and everything we know to be his visual identity beneath the uniform of respectable capitalism, it’s not enough to sate Mammon’s desire for human sacrifice. Your Financial Needs will never let you have such an easy, dignified way out as that.