When "Magic Mike" was first announced, the world took it as a colossal joke. Channing Tatum getting the biopic treatment? By Steven Soderbergh? It wasn't quite the cinematic end times, but it was certainly a sign to many that Hollywood — even someone like Soderbergh — had run out of ideas. Studios were becoming so desperate to cash in on a brand that they would pretend Channing Tatum was one.
When the first cast member to sign on was Matthew McConaughey, the movie-watching world rolled its eyes. McConaughey was the finishing dollop of cheese (and chest muscle) that signaled this movie was nothing more than celluloid junk food. Yes, "The Lincoln Lawyer" had won our favorite shirtless surfer some dramatic credibility back, but "Magic Mike" appeared to be a regression into fluff, as if he was trying to atone for wearing a shirt and tie for an entire film. The casting of beefcakes that followed — Alex Pettyfer, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer and Adam Rodriguez — didn't bolster the confidence or enthusiasm of cinephiles. At best, Soderbergh was going to turn out a harmless piece of eye-candy for his new friend Channing. At worst, it was going to be, well, a Matthew McConaughey movie.
But then the buzz started. The film wrapped in late October 2011 and was immediately snapped up for distribution by Warner Bros. Insiders were whispering that, despite its appearance, its cast and its dubious origin, the movie was actually really good. It wasn't long before test screenings singled out McConaughey's performance as a highlight and an early frontrunner for an Oscar nomination. Once June rolled around, the hype turned out to be true, and the praise has clung to him like a pair of sweaty stripper chaps. The Indie Spirit Awards announced a nomination for McConaughey for Best Supporting Actor - the question is whether or not Dallas can "All right, all right, all right" himself into the Academy Awards.
By now, those who have assiduously avoided "Magic Mike" are scoffing. An Oscar nomination for a stripper named Dallas? For a movie called "Magic Mike"? Is everyone high? Isn't it just the same old drawling McConaughey? What's special about this incarnation except the thong?
Well, quite a bit. It's a stellar performance from McConaughey, and largely because it happily trades on the star's dopey image. Dallas initially seems like a good ol' boy who has lucked out in the flesh trade. He's charming and cocky, reveling in his ability to send his female audience crazy by stroking his own nipples. (His "The law says you cannot touch this!" monologue might be the most quoted scene of 2012.) He's warm and generous to his cast of studs, especially his star Mike, and seems genuinely hurt when Adam (Pettyfer) tries to give him his first earnings. The way he shoves Adam's money back at him is tender and paternal.
Dallas is also obsessive and driven, but in a way we initially appreciate. He wants to put on the best beefcake show in Tampa, and his dream is to make enough money to take Xquisite to Miami. When the show has technical errors (Tarzan passes out), Dallas flips out in a way anyone in a high-stress and chaotic job will identify with. The show must go on, the audience must be satisfied, and no one seems to care more about that than Dallas.
However, the man running a show called Xquisite isn't exactly the businessman next door. Unsurprisingly, Dallas has a dark side. His relationship with his dancers is unsettlingly intimate and kinky. His view of women is a grim mix of romance and consumerism. His female audience is something to be pleased and teased (his "Ladies of Tampa" song is genuinely sweet), but they're also something to be crassly derided. Dallas proclaims them to be a screaming and desperate horde, easily manipulated out of their $20 bills with each pelvic thrust and direct eye contact. He's the portrait of the artist as a scumbag.
Still, isn't he just McConaughey? Weirdo McConaughey, blowing fire and living in a house decorated entirely with images of himself? That's certainly what Mike (and the audience) thinks, until Dallas reveals himself to be a vicious and manipulative manager who has been playing his fresh meat for years. The moment he turns on Mike is chilling, as Dallas snaps from laid-back bro to a cruel and craven user in an instant. Mike, who thinks of Dallas as an idiot pal, is as horrified as we are. It's a terrifically meta moment, as though McConaughey and his alter ego have spent years crafting a daffy bongo-playing image purely to turn on us. While much has been made of his final scene (a deliciously sleazy, feverish striptease where McConaughey's thong actually snaps off), it's his throwdown with Mike that's truly the stuff of a sizzle reel.
Even better, it's not just Dallas revealing his true colors but the film itself. We thought "Magic Mike" was a smutty comedy with a character named Big Dick Richie, but Dallas's I-own-you-moment turns it into a thoroughly adult film that could have been made in the '70s with Warren Beatty or James Caan sporting his studded thong.
McConaughey could – and should – get an Oscar nomination this year for "Magic Mike." Besides his performance as Dallas, the movies he's appeared in since cruising around in "The Lincoln Lawyer" are wildly different. In 2011 alone, we saw him on screen as a Stetson-wearing Texas DA in "Bernie," a psychopathic cop in "Killer Joe" and a very conflicted journalist in "The Paperboy" in quick succession, turning the tables on everyone who wrote him off as a romcom bonehead. He's currently earning a ton of press for his alarming weight loss as preparation for his role as an AIDS patient in "The Dallas Buyers Club."
Seemingly overnight, McConaughey has reinvented himself as a dedicated indie actor, willing to strip, wax and starve himself in order to achieve authenticity. If it was revealed tomorrow that McConaughey is actually a character being played by Daniel Day-Lewis in his most method performance to date, it would only be slightly less weird than what's actually happened to the "Dazed and Confused" star. The Academy loves a career resurrection as much as they love flashy roles, and McConaughey has provided both. He probably won't win against heavyweight favorites such as Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Master") or Tommy Lee Jones ("Lincoln"), but with a thong full of twenties and newfound industry respect, we think he already has.