“Magic Mike” is a tale of neon-lit nights in cheesy, ad hoc strip clubs and too-bright Florida days stung by hangovers. In fact, Steven Soderbergh's fizzy, effective story of Gulf Coast male strippers plays like a three-month bender, with one character questioning whether he has the constitution to keep going.
Continuing his surprising evolution as an actor, Channing Tatum plays Magic Mike, the star dancer at Club Xquisite, an all-male revue plopped down in what used to be a chain restaurant in a Tampa, Fla., shopping center — it's decorated with one of those tie-on vinyl signs that suggest either a quick business launch or easy mobility in case of trouble. Mike is 30 and stays busy, installing Spanish roof tiles by day, flexing his pecs by night. He has dreams of starting his own custom furniture business, but it's hard to get financing when the down payment is a thick stack of single dollar bills.
On the construction site, where the foreman is paying bottom dollar for day labor in a bad economy, Mike is paired up with an inexperienced 19-year-old named Adam (Alex Pettyfer). Adam doesn't know how to do anything (his college career did not pan out), and he's couch surfing as the guest of his level-headed older sister, Brooke (Cody Horn). But Mike sees potential in Adam, and sensing that the kid needs a friend, he soon introduces him to Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the charismatic ringmaster at Club Xquisite. Dubbed “The Kid,” Adam becomes a star in the garish, ridiculously over-the-top male revue, introduced to the low-rent lush life of big tips, easy sex and the party that never ends.
By now, Soderbergh seems out to prove there is no such thing as a quintessential “Steven Soderbergh movie” as he moves with ease from big budgets to zero budgets and mass market to niche market. But dig a little deeper, and “Magic Mike” is a continuation of one of Soderbergh's best traits: he trusts experience and takes chances. Recent films such as “The Girlfriend Experience” and “Haywire” featured lead performances by nontraditional choices (adult film actress Sasha Grey and mixed martial arts star Gina Carano, respectively). In this case, Soderbergh, Tatum and screenwriter Reid Carolin built “Magic Mike” partly on Tatum's experience as a male stripper in the late 1990s.
This approach works well and creates a degree of realism in a story about cheap fantasy, and Soderbergh had fun with the casting: Tatum is the only trained dancer in a group rounded out by McConaughey, Pettyfer, Joe Manganiello (“True Blood”), Matt Bomer and wrestler Kevin “Diesel” Nash. Oklahoma City's Olivia Munn has a few strong scenes as Joanna, a psychology student who did some thesis work on Mike and makes regular late-night calls to him for hookups, and relative newcomer Horn stands out as Adam's smart, wry sister.
If there is a weak link in “Magic Mike,” it's Pettyfer, whose passive performance results in Adam feeling absent even when the camera is trained on him, but Tatum is a different story altogether. Not too long ago, Tatum used to give those blank-slate readings. In “Magic Mike,” Tatum plays a man who has spent too much time dreaming, is aging out of his job and is starting to show some desperation. He has a great scene in a bank in which Mike tries to convince a loan officer (Betsy Brandt of “Breaking Bad”) that he is a good prospect despite his life paid in under-the-table cash. He knows she has a point, but he also palpably believes he deserves a break, rules or not, because in his life, there have never really been rules. Just do the deal — no one needs to know.
McConaughey is especially good as Dallas, the good ol' bad boy running Club Xquisite. He seems like everybody's friend until he gets crossed, and then McConaughey makes the life of the party turn ugly. Dallas is a variation on Wooderson from “Dazed and Confused” but with a mean streak, and it is good to see McConaughey taking stronger, weirder roles these days.
The obvious precursor to “Magic Mike” is Paul Thomas Anderson's “Boogie Nights,” another film that explored the margins of adult entertainment, but Soderbergh seems to be aiming more for 1970s drive-in dramas.
The film is set in the present, but it's not hard to imagine Burt Reynolds playing Magic Mike 40 years ago. While “Magic Mike” is most likely to get attention for all the oiled-up dancers dressed like Village People, it is far more interesting when it's not “raining men.”
— George Lang
Starring: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matt Bomer, Matthew McConaughey, Joe Manganiello, Olivia Munn, Cody Horn. (Pervasive sexual content, brief graphic nudity, language and some drug use)