La Bare opens with a male stripper briefly discussing the awkwardness of having soon-to-be-married women slip him their numbers after he performs at their bachelorette parties. For the stripper in question, this doesn’t represent a moral quandary so much as a taboo he knows well enough not to break. He isn’t about to wade into those murky ethical waters for the sake of sex, particularly when sex isn’t hard to come by for men in his profession. Seemingly everyone in La Bare, a documentary from Magic Mike star and first-time director Joe Manganiello, and focusing on the prominent Dallas strip club La Bare, seems to share this gentleman’s deep-seated sense of integrity.
The strippers in the club and the film take their cues from Randy “Master Blaster” Ricks, a musclebound man of a certain age, and a legend among male strippers. He serves as a father figure and mentor to the younger dancers, whom he attempts to mold in his studly, oddly wholesome image. As his mother approvingly notes, the secret to Ricks’ success in the shadowy world of adult entertainment is that he abstains from drugs, alcohol, and other bad habits that get his peers in trouble.
Then again, there aren’t many shadows to the world of adult entertainment in La Bare, which stops just short of positing male strip clubs as a boon to any neighborhood or community, and as a paragon of manly bonding and camaraderie. The film depicts stripping at La Bare as a newfangled form of vaudeville, complete with skits, costumes, props, and corny dialogue, as well as Vegas-style choreography.
The dancers at La Bare mostly take the dance part of “erotic dancer” even more seriously than the erotic part, so it’s refreshing to hear one of the club’s employees flat-out admit that he can’t dance for shit, and that his success is entirely rooted in his looks and skill at grubbily simulating sex during his signature cop routine. This dancer is also visibly soused much of the time he’s onscreen, but the film makes this hard-drinking man’s man seem like the exception to the rule.
The film’s other strippers run the gamut from adorably nerdy and inexperienced (one man is re-christened “Channing” to take advantage of the popularity of Manganiello’s breakout film) to family men stripping for their kids’ college funds. A big section of the film is dedicated to the legend of the club’s most renowned dancer, Ruben Riguero, whose movie-star looks, skill, charisma, and kindness made him a god among patrons. Riguero was fatally shot in a parking lot in 2012, and Le Bare all but nominates him for sainthood. The film’s non-judgmental, sex-positive approach to strippers and patrons is refreshing, but its attitude toward its subjects, the strip club, and particularly Ricks veers toward hagiography. Despite the promise of that opening scene, La Bare seldom veers into uncomfortable territory.
In its zeal to portray a night out at the strip club as a positive for both strippers making good money hanging out with their buddies, and women liberated from the tyranny of propriety, the film presents what appears to be an unrealistically effusive depiction of the strip-club ecosystem. It provides a glimpse of what the dancers think of the women who shove dollar bills in their thongs, but the film’s subjects are too reserved and diplomatic to say anything that might shatter the fantasies strip clubs thrive upon. Like the dancers whose lives it so positively and enthusiastically chronicles, La Bare puts on an entertaining show. The dancers are frequently funny and charismatic, and a sequence devoted to amateurs is a particular highlight. But La Bare chronicles this rich territory superficially. It’s a slick crowd-pleaser, but it’s perversely unrevealing about anything other than Manganiello’s affection for a the stripper experience. Given his participation in Magic Mike and its upcoming sequel, this world may have gotten too deep into his blood for him to be able to chronicle it objectively.