If you can look past all the flesh and the thongs and the thrusting — and I admit that is an almost impossible task and probably not one you’d want to undertake anyway — what’s most distinctive about Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike is its sense of fun. This film about male strippers in Tampa, inspired by actor Channing Tatum’s real-life experiences, is as similar to Showgirls as stripping is to investment banking. Soderbergh and screenwriter Reid Carolin purposely pay only scant attention to the dirty side of the business (the drugs, the fluffers, the general seediness) in order to put forth an entirely original yet unsurprising idea: Sometimes, hot young guys take off their clothes on stage to reap the rewards of women, money and the never-ending party.
Magic Mike is about one such guy (Tatum) who appreciates all that stuff, until a need to be taken seriously begins to outweigh his desire for easy cash and easier sex. Mike has a couple of day jobs, but by night he’s the star at Xquisite, a club run and hosted by the enterprising Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, whose hipbones deserve a sequel and should probably be pressed into immortality outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre). Dallas wears a cowboy hat and does not seem to own many shirts, and he acts as sort of a madam to his coterie of dancers. As far as he’s concerned, he has the best job in the world.
Mike likes his job, too. He has a healthy sense of humor about his night moves, but he’s got dreams, too. He wants to build custom furniture and needs a bank loan to finance his long-range plans. He wants his elusive hook-up (Olivia Munn) to take him seriously, too, but she tends to look at him as if he’s a particularly tender, rare cut of steak, one she’s not much interested in talking to. And when he meets the younger, directionless Adam (Alex Pettyfer) and ushers him into the fold, he recognizes himself in the kid’s eager embrace of the lifestyle and isn’t sure he likes what he sees.
Adam also has a sister, Brooke, (Cody Horn), who also plays a big part in Mike’s discontent. Essentially, Magic Mike is a love story about a guy who has to grow up in order to get the girl, and in that respect the movie is as safe and predictable as warm milk. Even Adam’s foray into drugs seems preordained. But Soderbergh never lets the drama run away with him. Even the most harrowing scene — in which Mike and Adam, dressed as cops, work a sorority party that lapses into sudden violence — isn’t over the top; it’s quick, confusing and realistic, but it doesn’t overshadow the movie’s light tone.
Soderbergh’s attention to detail is, well, exquisite (witness the haphazard taping of the windows while a hurricane rages outside, or the old-Florida jalousies on Brooke’s apartment), and the film’s humor is welcome and genuinely funny. The utter lack of heavy handedness is even more refreshing; Magic Mike is not a sociological study, though it raises some interesting questions. The movie never comes right out and lectures us about how women go to strip clubs for different reasons from men — for one thing, they don’t usually go alone; they tend to go in packs and scream with hilarity — but the film suggests that idea effectively through its many stripping sequences. The trailers don’t lie: There is a lot of gyrating and simulated sex in Magic Mike, and it looks like a hell of a lot of fun.
Tatum, who won the hearts of teenage girls with Step Up early in his career, is a terrific dancer, of course, but he’s also a solid, likeable leading man: This guy doesn’t get enough credit for being as good as he is, much like his co-star McConaughey, whose recent roles in such movies as The Lincoln Lawyer and Bernie may indicate he’s ready to abandon those dreadful romcoms for a while. His is a bold performance indeed. In one scene, Dallas finally comes on stage to perform, and McConaughey goes for broke, rolling and writhing on the stage while women grab at him and throw cash. I would’ve handed over my credit card. The party can’t go on forever, Magic Mike tells us, but while it lasts, you may as well have a good time.
Cast: Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn, Joe Manganiello, Matthew Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, Kevin Nash.
Director: Steven Soderbergh.
Screenwriter: Reid Carolin.
Producers: Reid Carolin, Gregory Jacobs, Channing Tatum, Nick Wechsler.
A Warner Bros release. Running time: 110 minutes. Pervasive sexual content, brief graphic nudity, language, some drug use. Opens Friday June 29 at: area theaters.