After a string of recent misfires such as the two-part Che biopic, The Girlfriend Experience, and The Informant!, America’s own auteur Steven Soderbergh has bounced back considerably over the past year; delivering the chilling ensemble drama Contagion, the low-key action-thriller Haywire, and now the raunchy, funny male stripper movie Magic Mike. A non-judgemental movie about selling sex and reaching for the American Dream, it’s Boogie Nights for the new millennium, though more upbeat.
Channing Tatum (21 Jump Street) stars in the title role, a 30ish male stripper and would-be entrepreneur who dreams of starting a custom furniture business with the cash he’s saved from stripping and working construction and auto detailing jobs. The only mainstay in his life is Joanna (Olivia Munn), a casual hook-up partner.
Mike befriends and Adam (Alex Pettyfer) a rudderless 19-year-old drop-out whom he quickly recruits into the fold at the strip club Xquisite, shoving him out on stage to without warning, sacrificing him to cash-wavinig ladies to the appropriate tune of “Like a Virgin”. The Kid, as he is dubbed, turns out to be a natural.
This brings Mike into the orbit of Adam’s protective older sister, Brooke (impressive newcomer Cody Horn), whom he is immediately attracted to; of course, her skepticism about Mike’s lifestyle and line of work forms an immediate barrier to burgeoning romance.
Soderbergh was inspired to make the film when he learned of Tatum’s own brief career as a stripper before breaking into the acting gig. At its core the movie is your typical cautionary tale of getting too much too soon — the allure of easy money, easier women, and a non-stop party takes its toll on Adam, of course — but Soderbergh and first-time screenwriter Reid Carolin keep it grounded it reality and sidestep crass exploitation. They respect their characters and our intelligence.
Tatum, who in the past has been as critical of his acting skills (or lack thereof) as everyone shows remarkable range and confidence here, and Magic Mike confirms the notion that he’s a budding leading man who has largely spent the past few years trapped in banal crap. Tatum superbly delivers Mike’s vulnerabilities; he’s a man who knows he’s on a dead-end course and is realizing that his exit strategy may just be an illusion, and Tatum nails his frustration perfectly. Tatum also delivers some slick dance moves for the first time since Step Up (2006), and it’s an impressive display of skill.
It’s a testament to Soderbergh’s knack for off-beat casting, which extends beyond Tatum to include Pettyfer, surprisingly good here coming across so bland and wooden in last year’s Beastly and I Am Number Four; and Matthew McConaughey, who skyrockets over the top as narcissistic and slightly loopy club owner/stripper guru Dallas. The rest of Dallas’ troupe is played by Matt Bomer (Chuck), former wrestler Kevin Nash (as the well-named Tarzan), Adam Rodriguez (CSI: Miami), and Joe Manganiello (True Blood), all of whom do a lot with largely background roles. The real stand-out is Horn; much as he did with Gina Carano in Haywire, Soderbergh has molded an unknown into a disarming performer who can speak volumes with just a look. (The close-ups of her face as she watches Mike’s routine for the first time express more than any 10 minutes worth of dialogue.)
But let’s face it: a big chunk of the movie’s opening weekend will be generated courtesy of gay men and straight women looking for the promising of beefcake, which Soderbergh serves up in spades. Choreographed by Alison Faulk, the dance numbers deliver every male stripper cliché: soldiers, sailors, cops, cowboys, firemen, you name it. It’s like the Village People as interpreted by Chippendale’s, and throughout it all Soderbergh turns gender roles and sexual objectification on their heads. He maintains his trademark semi-improvised, borderline verite feel, delivering a very naturalistic film.