Remember Blue Crush (2002)? Kate Bosworth as a Hawaiian surfer who works as a hotel maid and is sorta-kinda working her way back to serious surfing competition with the help of her tough-love friend Michelle Rodriguez? The film spent a lot of time showing us beautiful bodies and truly great, beautiful shots of surfing & Hawaii, while offering up an “I’m not ruling it out” relationship to feminism (aside from a couple of really stunningly great lines, but that’s another matter). It also sported a pretty interesting relationship to class and sex if you could be distracted from the hot bodies long enough to notice. There was just enough dramatic tension to hold the whole thing together, and it remains a better-than-okay thing to catch on TV on a Saturday afternoon.

Sigh. In too many similar ways, Magic Mike follows suit with predictable (yet not cheesy enough) plot points and a general lack of commitment to any one vision. (And certainly not enough to be the Citizen Kane of male stripper movies.) The renowned director Sidney Lumet’s eloquent book, Making Movies, reminds us of the simple question every director must answer before beginning: what is this film about? I don’t think Soderbergh would have an answer.

Matt Bomer as Ken, suggestively fondling his belt in his Officer and a Gentleman fantasy outfit

Steven Soderbergh made Magic Mike with the same cool vibe as Blue Crush — it resists going too far down any particular path, but flirts with a number of them. It’s not nearly the cheesy romp you might expect/ hope for (sigh x 2), considering the male stripper subject matter, and despite every single appearance by Matthew McConaughey (and after laughing at him, you want to wash your hands).

Also: it’s not nearly as gay as it ought to be. I was afraid that’d be the case (sigh x 3). Even though it shows men touching one another and loving one another — “Hey, Mike, I think we should be best friends,” Adam (Alex Pettyfer) says with unfiltered gushiness — it spends more time trying to get nervous laughs from its straight viewers from some of those scenes. And let’s not forget that it shows so much straight sex that, frankly, this straight girl got a little bored; I preferred the dancing, which suggests a broader, pan-sexual range. Its sole openly gay actor, Matt Bomer (as one of the strippers) is, oddly, the sole character portrayed as married in the film.

In fact, the gay potential is so subdued that you have to go looking for it — which makes no sense for a film like this. I mean, all those shots of bulbous, perfectly hairless butt cheeks? The Village People-style outfits/ personae the dancers don for their routines? The scene of Mike (Channing Tatum) and Adam shopping for thongs?

On the plus side, goddamn that Channing Tatum can dance. I’ve never cared for him — and his acting/ face still leave me meh — but dude can grind. The dance sequences rock, even when they’re ensemble routines that include the strippers who can’t dance for shit. The choreography of those strip routines is creative and occasionally hilarious and make up for a lot of the film’s shortcomings; there’s just not enough of them. I still doubt I’ll ever be a fan of Tatum’s, but watching him dance was sometimes jaw-droppingly fun, almost to the point that I might have to check out Step Up (2006) to see what he does beyond the male stripping métier.

So why does the film feel so scattershot?

First, the filming style is ambivalent about its relationship to the audience’s gaze. On this point I chime in with bloggers Dark Iris and Alex over at Film Forager about distancing tactics. About half the dance sequences are filmed from a distance — sometimes a crazy far distance — resulting in a weirdly untitillating style of camerawork, to paraphrase Iris.

Dark Iris wonders whether the filmmaker tried to be respectful of the male dancers’ privacy, and perhaps as a nod to the odd (nervous) straight guy who wanders in. Alex wonders about all that audience giggling:

The ladies in the audience (both the one onscreen and in the real-life theater) are giggling like crazy. Is this because we’re uncomfortable with all that sexual energy being directed at us, since usually it’s the other way around?

Whatever’s going on, it’s clear that Soderbergh wants to make his viewers self-conscious of the fact they’re watching strippers — registering with all that nervous giggling and those long shots (just when you want a closer look at Pettyfer in that cowboy outfit) what a strange phenomenon male strip clubs are, with their screaming women and/ or gay men.

That’s what’s weird, right? The many degrees of separation between truth and fiction, lived experience and virtuality, the titillating and yet distancing camera. This story is sort of based on Tatum’s real life, but he was the Adam character, not Mike. How many women in my audience would never, never, ever go to a real-life male stripper show, even if it had Channing Tatum in it? Yet they showed up in packs at my theater, all squealing and hooting — truly, the best part of watching this film was the fact that the audience insisted it live up to its promise to be hot.

You can’t watch this film without thinking how much safer it is to go see this stuff in a cinema with your friends rather than drive out to that skeezy place on Route 365. It’s safer because you’re not implicated in the watching. Magic Mike shows just as many screaming, stunned, drunken women as it does great dance numbers, reflecting back on its cinema viewers their own faces. So the film gets marketed heavily to women and gay men due to its representations of dance scenes in the club — and we all dutifully file in — but it’s so anxious not to replicate the scene of the club that it turns a mirror on us?

I’ve spent a goodly amount of time thinking about this and can’t figure out what the rationale would be to pull back from the cheesy/ titillating dance scenes. There’s no larger point the film is trying to make about the audience’s gaze.

Now, I shouldn’t give the impression that the dance scenes fail to be titillating altogether. In fact, one of the most stunning things about Tatum’s dancing is his bumping and grinding and mimicking really banging sex onstage. It’s just that once the film shows some of those full-on sexy dance routines, it backs away from the implications of those scenes to cool off — like with some chill scenes at the beach, or Mike working at all his other jobs, or actual sex scenes that are just boring compared to that the simulated sex onstage. The Magic Mike persona is the sex fantasy; the real Mike is a mensch.

“Am I Magic Mike talking to you right now?” he demands of Adam’s sister Brooke, the sort-of love interest, during a fight. “I am not my lifestyle.” But he kind of is. And he’s actually a lot more interesting when he’s Magic Mike than when he’s just Mike. Brooke fires back, “Do you believe what you’re saying right now?” The audience thinks, yawn, now please do some dancing.

The second disconnected thing about the film is its uncertainty about the self-made man narrative — the way it gestures at telling a story about being a man during a terrible economy, about working as hard as you can to realize a dream and still failing — but the writing/ filming never really commits itself to that purpose. Mike is working about three and a half jobs so that he can work his way up to doing what he wants to do: building custom coffee tables. (Tables that are really ugly. Anyway, a dream’s a dream, I guess.)

That same Runnin’ Toward A Dream theme undergirded Blue Crush, as did the threat that our hero might get distracted away from it. Except that whereas in Blue Crush her desire to compete seriously in surfing competition gave the film a goodly part of its feminist potential, Magic Mike is about dudes, and it’s about a post-financial crash America.

And there’s something crazy that happens toward the end of Magic Mike.  ***SPOILERS AHEAD***

The film holds up Mike as a kind of idealized Everyman — he’s hotter than shit (or so the film tells us), works like a dog, saves his money, looks out for his little buddy Adam, and is ultimately the male stripper with a heart of gold.

But (and here’s the spoiler): Mike fails. He’s no self-made man; he’s a schlemiel.

In Blue Crush, Kate Bosworth loses the competition but (like Rocky) she really won because she proved something to herself. She even got rid of the lame-ass guy because he was getting in the way of her dream. Magic Mike reverses all those narratives. He finds that no matter how hard he works, he can’t win. His own niceness gets in the way; he learns he can’t control the behavior of a young gun like Adam. He can’t even get paid decently by his supposed partner at the club, even though Dallas (McConaughey) wants him to move to Miami to set up a new club.

Finally, defeated and distressed, he turns to Brooke for a real person to talk to — and she (finally) propositions him before he can say much of anything. Having gotten them to the point of having sex, the film ends abruptly. WTF?

What’s weird is that it’s a girl ending. Well, to be fair, a real girl ending would have her reluctantly face the end of her dreams just as the handsome guy proposes to her, and she rapturously accepts. Even Blue Crush wouldn’t go there — it’s so retrograde as narratives go. But in having Magic Mike end that way, it weirdly feminizes Mike — turns him into the girl whose dreams aren’t important enough to overshadow love with the right person.

Now, there are a lot of things about the current economy that make men (and women) feel helpless, or perhaps forced to choose between chasing the dollar at any expense of one’s moral code. The financial crisis turned all of us into girls, too afraid to leave our bad jobs lest we lose our health insurance and never find another one. On some level we’re all working girl jobs, hating our bosses and feeling desperate for the lack of options.

If only this narrative felt intentional, brilliant, purposeful, a statement about manliness in the modern world. Instead it feels like a punt. Mike faces a genuine crisis, seeks out the one person whom he feels might help him find answers, and she proposes they go to bed. In other words, the film kind of says he really is just a sex object — Brooke ignores his personal crisis, or (worse) she assumes that sex will resolve it all.

In 2002 I walked out of Blue Crush feeling ridiculously disappointed — I was full of mixed feelings just as I was after seeing this film. But in the years since when I’ve caught 30 minutes or so of it on Saturday afternoon TV, I always find myself viewing it with fondness — an affection for its willingness to open up to other narrative possibilities. I’ve stopped blaming it for its weaknesses, its missed chances.

Will I feel the same way about Magic Mike? Will I laugh again at those crazy dance numbers, at those plastic male bodies onstage and their screaming white lady-fans? Will I see that Soderbergh is attempting to say something more profound about manliness, gender, or the female/ gay male gaze?

I’m honestly not sure. But the film’s generally cool, laid-back aesthetic — punctuated with hot dance scenes — will probably get better on second viewing. And who knows? Once I stop approaching it with other expectations, it might grow on me. (Heh: I said grow on me.)

Maybe I saw Sidney Lumet’s Network in high school — I remember the “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” scenes — but I wasn’t prepared to find its satire so brilliant 35 years after its initial release. What I’d completely forgotten was all the other satirical elements, from the sex scenes between Faye Dunaway and William Holden to the subplot of Dunaway’s attempts to sign a group of violent radicals, the Ecumenical Liberation Army, to a TV contract. Considering that it’s a satire of the TV-ification of America I can’t believe it’s so fresh today, and so prescient of what we experienced in television during the last generation. From the opening scenes to the conclusion, this film is perfect.

One of the film’s themes is the generation gap; so how perfect that Holden — anti-hero star of Stalag 17 and Sunset Boulevard, whose cynicism helped create such 1950s anti-establishment protagonists as Holden Caulfield — would play Max, the head of the United Broadcasting Service news division. Now in late middle age, he’s found himself defending principles and idealism against the über-cynical corporate types who are taking over UBS. Of these, Diana (Dunaway) is the worst: a gorgeous series programmer with a preternatural gift for repackaging TV to get a bigger market share. She can see that “the American people are turning sullen. They’ve been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression; they’ve turned off, shot up, and they’ve fucked themselves limp, and nothing helps.” Whereas Max and his news anchor, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) joke darkly about a new program like “Terrorist of the Week”:

Max:  We could make a series of it. “Suicide of the Week.” Aw, hell, why limit ourselves? “Execution of the Week.”
Howard:  “Terrorist of the Week.”
Max:  I love it. Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups: “The Death Hour.” A great Sunday night show for the whole family. It’d wipe that fuckin’ Disney right off the air.

Diana is utterly serious about such plans. She hires a radical black commie feminist to wrangle the crazy members of the Ecumenical Liberation Army into creating a popular new show (the scene of their contract negotiations is worth a Netflix subscription). Most of all, Diana can see that the newly insane Howard, with his TV rants about all the bullshit in American society, can be repackaged as The Mad Prophet for a new-and-improved news hour that also features Sybil the Soothsayer. Diana is television: for her, all publicity is good publicity, all political agendas can be transformed into catnip for audiences, there is no meaningful distinction between news and amusement. She doesn’t care in the least that Howard tells viewers to turn off their televisions, because she knows that his show gets more viewers than any competitor.

Even more dark is the film’s portrayal of Howard, who really is saying something important about TV — even though no one pays any attention:

Man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell. We’ll tell you that, uh, Kojak always gets the killer, or that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker’s house, and no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, just look at your watch; at the end of the hour he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds… we’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! WE are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now! TURN THEM OFF… (He collapses in a faint on the set. The studio audience explodes with applause and cheers; the studio cameras pan out from his limp body.)

They don’t turn off their sets, as Diana well knows; they can hardly wait for more. The script by Paddy Chayefsky — his third to win an Oscar for Best Screenplay — is perfect at every turn. When I watched this last night with my friend Susan, we commented on one of those mini-moments in which Diana’s assistant (a very young Conchata Ferrell) pitches ideas for new series:

The first one is set at a large Eastern law school, presumably Harvard. The series is irresistibly entitled “The New Lawyers.” The running characters are a crusty-but-benign ex-Supreme Court justice, presumably Oliver Wendell Holmes by way of Dr. Zorba; there’s a beautiful girl graduate student; and the local district attorney who is brilliant and sometimes cuts corners. The second one is called “The Amazon Squad.” The running characters include a crusty-but-benign police lieutenant who’s always getting heat from the commissioner; a hard-nosed, hard-drinking detective who thinks women belong in the kitchen; and the brilliant and beautiful young girl cop who’s fighting the feminist battle on the force. Up next is another one of those investigative reporter shows. A crusty-but-benign managing editor who’s always gett… (Diana cuts her off there.)

No wonder the film won so many awards. Watch it again — it’s gone right up to my list of Best Films Ever.