So get this: male strippers are entrepreneurs. It’s a French word. That’s what Channing Tatum tells us in Soderbergh’s new movie, which at least provides a warmer approach to sex than the director’s clinical and creepy The Girlfriend Experience, a virtually catatonic chronicle about an expensive New York call girl. Ostensibly based on Tatum’s own beginnings as a male stripper, the loosely directed, Soderbergh-lensed Magic Mike allows Tatum to deliver an affable as well as bare-skin impersonation of an almost-thirty lead performer in a Tampa, Florida joint called Xquisite run by a loud, preening Matthew McConaughey, whose latest display of acting (as “Dallas”) is as bold, lewd, and in-your-face as the club’s male strip action. As for our earnest (not very) “entrepreneur,” Mike (Tatum), does roofing, and some car detailing, as well as a star turn at Xquisite incorporating some of his hip-hoppy Step Up moves. His dream is to start a business making one-of-a-kind furniture. But in the bad economy, donning a suit and tie and glasses doesn’t win Mike the bank loan he seeks for the personal business. The lady bank vice president (if she could only see his butt!) simply rolls her eyes when he puts two stacks of cash on her desk to establish his bona fides. She cannot give a loan to somebody without a credit rating whose under-the-table construction earnings are augmented only by $1 and $5 bills tucked into his thong.
Magic Mike, with its lightweight plot and energetic all-male revue action, is halfway between Soderbergh’s deliriously entertaining Oceans remakes and the creepy, comatose Girlfriend Experience. Between gross talk and backstage realism, it offers plot satisfactions, but somewhat obvious ones — a touch of liberation and a touch of romance for Tatum, some hard lessons for his younger sidekick.
If you set aside McConaughey’s grandstanding, there are three minor, but appealing, actors who provide Magic Mike’s slim young adult fiction plot with a little backbone: Tatum, who handles his semi-improvised dialogue with lightness and humour nearly every time; Alex Pettyfer, a young Brit (Tom in the TV movie of Tom Brown’s Schooldays seven years ago), who plays Adam, the strip club’s ingenue, hired without experience off Craig’s List to help out on a roofing job, then brought to the club. It’s not much of a speaking part but it’s pivotal to whatever plot there is, and Pettyfer doesn’t blow it. Number three is Cody Horn, daughter of the top exec at Warner Bros., who released this film, in the part of Adam’s more sensible older sister Brooke. She hardly seems to act at all, but that’s a good thing. When Mike meets him, Adam’s hotheadedness has recently lost him a football scholarship, and he’s living with Brooke. He needs money so after the roofing job Mike takes him to Xquisite as a gofer, but (in the usual tired plot device) a stripper gets injured, and Adam is pushed out on stage. He’s well built and the women in the audience are as desperate as he is, so he has only to remove his clothes (to music, of course) to win wild applause. The fact that he’s only 19 and therefore not legally there is one of several plot points that fall away like discarded leather vests.
The plot is something S.E. Hinton could have handled with more conviction, though this may be outside her milieu. It’s Tampa, not Tulsa, and Dallas’ big dream is to move the show to Miami. Adam catches on fast under Dallas’ oily tutelage, is dubbed “The KId,” and soon is a featured act at the club. A star is born? No, a moral lesson is delivered, because Adam is going to succumb to Hinton-esque bad judgment and wild behavior, womanising and using and selling drugs, which gets him into, well, trouble, you know? And Brooke is mad because Mike has promised to take care of her brother. This is about it, really, though a more complete review would include evaluations of the numerous scenes depicting the beefy performers whipping off clothes and pumping their pelvises, starting off in outfits out of a Village People routine and winding up in metallic thongs. If you took those strip and pump sequences away, this movie would be truly naked. And the whole business of the entrepreneurship gets pretty much lost along the way, leaving Mike in need of a new game plan.
To consider this movie a profound and serious treatment of the world of male strippers is to jump to the questionable conclusion that that world is profound or serious. Magic Mike has fared surprisingly well in reviews. It seems no coincidence that the papers have sent their female movie critics out to cover it. Because when it’s all over, what any spectator of Magic Mike will remember are those pecs and butts and spread legs. All I want to picture, though, are a few graceful scenes where Channing Tatum and Cody Horn play off each other with an easy rhythm that shows off Tatum’s modesty and humour.
This is not a very good movie. But it was made by Steven Soderbergh, of Sex, Lies and Videotape, and the many unnecessary genres and the few big scores, who gets attention many directors don’t. Compared to Contagion and Haywire, his last two features, Magic Mike is a fun fest, and for its target audience, a blast. The Soderbergh chill factor — to which his own camerawork (behind the pseudonym “Peter Andrews”) and some of the edits contribute — and the personal touch Channing Tatum adds, keep this from feeling like Burlesque or some other prefab Hollywood product.