Movie Review: Valley of the Thongs

Even Channing Tatum’s admittedly glorious naked butt is powerless to prop up the limp, incapable Magic Mike, no matter how many times it shakes itself.


Mike (Channing Tatum) wears many hats; he runs a car detailing business, manages work on a construction site and works hard to realize his dream of making tacky furniture from discarded auto parts. He also wears a police hat—or a sailor hat or a cowboy hat—in his role as Magic Mike, lead stripper of the male revue at Tampa’s club Xquisite. Along with Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriquez), Tarzan (Kevin Nash) and Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Mike spends his nights bumping and grinding for countless numbers of bachlorette parties, birthday girls and frumpy housewives with too much cash on their hands (but never for men).

Mike recruits one of his construction co-workers Adam (Alex Pettyfer), renamed “The Kid,” into Xquisite’s line-up with the stern disapproval of Adam’s sister Paige (Cody Horn), but with the approval of Xquisite’s owner, former stripper Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Because this is a Hollywood film, who teaches us all that stripping is inherently degrading and humiliating, Adam soon finds himself in a spiral of addiction to cash, adulation, women and drugs that threatens to take Mike with him and prevent Mike from getting out of stripping and into the lucrative world of avant-garde, over-priced furniture sales.

It’s raining men. Again. Hallelujah, I guess?

At this point, it’s common knowledge that Channing Tatum was a stripper when he was 19. Footage of his time as a stripper surfaced immediately after his first major role in G. I. Joe hit theaters. The refreshing part, however, is that Tatum has not seemed at all embarrassed by his time in scandalous man-panties. He even went so far as to get a movie made inspired by his experiences as a stripper, even convincing Steven Soderbergh—the Academy-Award winning director of Traffic, Ocean’s 11 and Contagion—to film and direct. The fact that Soderbergh is behind the helm of a film detailing the lives, times and banana hammocks of a troupe of male strippers is highly unusual, and it turns out to be one of the few interesting things about a film that manages to make some of the hottest actors working today seem boring, lifeless and completely inert.

The film’s downfall is the fact that it had to have a plot. The trailers for the film emphasize the comedy aspect of the film, as well as Mike’s tentative romance with Paige, but that makes up only a small part of the film’s story arc. While the film maintains a light-hearted feel for the first 45 minutes or so, there comes a turning point near the end of Act II that hurtles the film into a vortex of “the dangers of show business” cliches that fly across the screen with all the subtlety of a Reefer Madness to the forehead, but with virtually no amount of self-awareness. Three months’ time is all it takes to turn Adam from a scrappy, slacker ne’er-do-well into a drugged-out, bed-hopping stud in debt to Cuban crime lords. Nomi Malone would be jealous of Adam’s efficiency, especially considering that Adam never needed to push Mike down the stairs and didn’t have to live on brown rice and vegetables.

Above: an example of the film’s subtlety.

The other major problem is the paper-thin characters, especially Mike himself. Putting it quite bluntly, Mike is a massive douche. He’s highly unlikable from scene one, in which he wakes up next to his friend-with-benefits Joanne (Olivia Munn) and another woman who’s name neither of them can remember. The script attempts to present him as charming and witty, but he only comes off as arrogant and kind of slimy. He wanders through the world with a highly undeserved sense of entitlement and becomes petulant when he can’t have his way. When Mike tries to secure a bank loan for his furniture business, even going so far as to wear a suit, tie and a pair of glasses to the appointment, he’s turned down for his obvious lack of credit, since he may have multiple jobs but they all pay him in cash. He tries to charm the female banker and seems convinced that if he flashes enough cash he can have whatever he wants. When she repeatedly and diplomatically tries to tell him he can’t have the loan, he goes from giving her compliments on her jewelry to basically telling her that she doesn’t know how to do her job because she won’t bend the rules for him.

Granted, part of Mike’s story arc is his slow realization that outside the world of Xquisite, he’s a very small fish in a very big pond. Tatum seems to have a lot to prove, and Magic Mike is a step in cementing his status as a serious actor and not just a highly bankable, boffable piece of beef. Tatum is actually quite good in the film, and he lends Mike a degree of authenticity that makes him at least relatable, even if he isn’t likable. You feel like you’ve known someone like Mike before, and while you might (rightfully) think he’s an arrogant jerk, you can’t help but want to be around him. He has an air of accomplishment that’s completely unwarranted and entirely fabricated, but is held aloft by Tatum’s physical presence and conviction. Tatum’s also an amazingly athletic and dexterous dancer, performing any number of flips and spins, his limbs as flexible, malleable and rubbery as the dubstep baselines he dances to. The best parts of the film are, without a doubt, Mike’s solo numbers, which almost make you forget about the suffocating melodrama surrounding them.

Channing Tatum shows off two of the best parts of the film.

It’s a shame that the rest of the cast doesn’t make the same impact or investment. Alex Pettyfer tries his best, but there’s only so much he or anybody else could do with Adam, who comes off as arrogant and entitled as Mike, but has none of Mike’s disarming (if sleazy) charm. Despite the fact that Pettyfer’s 22 years old, he never once seems believable as an adrift 19-year-old (or as an American for that matter; his accent is all over the place). Even his stage antics smack of trying way too hard, even well into The Kid’s performance career. Cody Horn makes a poor match for Adam, and for Mike to a lesser extent. Horn doesn’t have much chemistry with either one of them, although she tends to hold her own relatively well, even if she resembles Ali Larter in desperate need of a buffet. She has an unenviable position in that she seems to be the only woman in the entire film who isn’t a junkie, whore, slut or sexually repressed to the point that an attractive, fully-dressed man dry humping a stage makes her wet herself and stuff a day’s pay worth of one dollar bills into a padded g-string. She also seems to be the only one immune to Mike’s charm, and although the budding romance between Mike and Paige never seems like it should work until the final scenes in the film, it also has a refreshing lack of pretension and artifice. 

The supporting cast is only there to prop Mike up and make him look like the superior moral force. The men of Xquisite are uniformly vacuous, superficial himbos, defined entirely by their stage gimmick. Ken looks like a Ken doll and even has an air-headed Barbie of a wife. Tarzan is big and burly. Richie is, surprisingly, the one with the biggest dick, even if it’s revealed (in probably the film’s funniest moment) that he receives some help in that respect from a few specifically-designed gadgets. Tito is Hispanic; seriously, that’s his gimmick. Only Ken gets anything like character development, and that’s only when he’s stoned out of his mind and partner-swapping with Adam at a party. Matthew McConaughey, on the other hand, is way too colorful, crossing the boundary from comedic to pathetic and then back again. Dallas is a slight variation on McConaughey’s public persona: goofy, Southern, often shirtless, probably high and a fan of playing the bongos. If you dislike McConaughey, you won’t change your mind here, although you may take comfort in the fact that these qualities aren’t necessarily made to look desirable, and it’s clear that Dallas is washed-up, past his prime and completely, utterly delusional about his own place in the world’s social hierarchy. He’s the kind of guy who has a gigantic velvet painting of himself dancing half-naked with a python in the most common room of his house.

The scent of desperation, spray tan and viagra lingers.

What makes the film so completely disappointing is its hoary, shopworn take on the world of stripping. There isn’t a cautionary tale trope that screenwriter Reid Carolin doesn’t love, and he makes sure to throw in as many as he can. It’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, if that film had no sense of self or satire, and if the Carrie Nations had sausage in their trousers, or Showgirls without the ironic, metatextual social commentary. Soderbergh keeps things moving with an endless series of camera tricks and angles, but he lacks the campy-yet-committed touch of Russ Meyer or Paul Verhoeven to make the second half of the film work. That’s not to say that Magic Mike can’t be genuinely dramatic in-between the crotch-thrusting on-stage antics of the Xquisite men, but it also shouldn’t see itself as a serious message film at the same time. It flirts with the idea of how someone like Mike doesn’t quite fit into the real world and into “legitimate” society, but that’s quickly abandoned for another scene of someone doing something lurid. The stripshow elements are intended to be background setting, with the focus on Mike and Adam’s struggles, but the marketing campaign pushed those same elements as the main attraction, and surrounding them with drug overdoses and bottles broken over heads only serves to steal any humor or eroticism that the stage show might have.

Granted, it’s hard to call the strip show “erotic,” because it isn’t that at all. Are there gorgeous men getting mostly naked? Yes, of course. Does Channing Tatum have one of the nicest, sweetest butts in recent memory? Oh, does he ever. But male strip shows aren’t about eroticism, just about cheap thrills. Violent pelvic thrusts are common choreography, and the whole thing seems so overtly sexual that it actually becomes inert. Don’t tell that to the women in the audience, however, because they’re all going crazy for it since this is one of the only outlets like this women traditionally have. Men (straight and gay) have countless strip bars at their disposal, but women only have the Chippendales and the Thunder From Down Under, and if you’ve ever seen one of these shows, it’s genuinely frightening how crazy the audience gets. Even the audience in the screening, which was probably 90% female, couldn’t keep themselves still during the stripping scenes. In this respect, the women of Magic Mike are almost all portrayed as sausage-hungry groupies, with the exception of Paige, and the film’s pervasive misogyny is not only off-putting, but distinctly unattractive. It’s apotheosis is found in a scene where big, beefy, muscle-bound Fireman Stripper Richie tries to lift a mildly zaftig audience member and ends up throwing out his back and having to cancel his number. See, it’s funny, because she’s fat!

Let’s just say he didn’t complete his rescue training.

And this brings up another point: this film is strictly for the ladies. The film may have been marketed heavily to gay men, which makes total sense, because if there’s one thing gay men love, it’s a full basket and an ass so tight you could bounce quarters off of it. However, there’s nothing at all gay about the film. There are no bromances to speak of, not a single man in the Xquisite’s audience, and the idea that the men may end up occasionally entertaining other men is never even approached. It’s a heteronormative fantasy, and one of the ways the film feels distinctly unreal. Everything is geared to appeal to a traditional female demographic to the point of absurdity. Soderbergh was able to make a worldwide, apocalyptic epidemic seem frighteningly real and immediate with Contagion, but there’s nothing he can do to make Magic Mike seem at all realistic.

If you’re going based solely on the prospect of seeing Channing Tatum’s swinging baloney, you’d do better to download the film’s red-band trailer. If you’re going to see Matt Bomer or Joe Manganiello shake their stuff, don’t bother. Only Mike’s solo numbers are lingered on very long, and they’re the only ones not seemingly edited to death. You would do better to check out the countless pictures of the guys shirtless on-line. You never have to leave your chair, and they have about as much depth as the characters themselves. Save the money you’d spend on tickets, concessions, parking, etc., and go to a real strip club. At least there you’ll get a little bang for your buck, and who knows…you might be helping some wanna-be entrepreneur realize his dream. 

Rating: 4 out of 10 / C-

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and can striptease way better than these guys. <a href="; title="imageimage

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