Clear-eyed "Magic Mike" deftly mixes beefcake eye-candy and substance

Magic Mike (2012)
110 min., rated R.
Every "woo!" girl and gay man is going to rush out in droves to see "Magic Mike," not being that it's filmmaker Steven Soderbergh's latest film but because it's the summer's male-stripper movie with Channing Tatum. Before moving into modeling and acting, the then-18-year-old Tatum worked as a stripper for eight months, a part of his life that inspired director Soderbergh to make "Magic Mike" when the two worked together on January's "Haywire." The trailers and marketing promise it to be a big-screen bachelorette party, but while entertaining on the surface, it's also unexpectedly darker and more substantial than just a wild, glitzy striptease. With that said, if any non-3D film this year could burn from so much eye-candy and heat on screen, it'd still be this one.

A self-described entrepreneur in Tampa, Florida, 30-year-old Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) details cars, constructs roofs, and strips, just so he can save enough money to start his own custom furniture business. A lost, unmotivated 19-year-old named Adam (Alex Pettyfer) is hired to tile a roof at a construction site but has no former experience, so Mike reluctantly has to show him the ropes. Later that night, Adam learns what Mike does night by night, under the headlining name "Magic Mike," at the Xquisite Dance Revue, and even gets pushed out on stage to perform his first striptease. The club's owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), who's planning to make Mike his partner at his next club in Miami, decides Adam has the right stuff to be part of the revue, but "The Kid" (as he goes by) begins to enjoy the attention a bit too much before causing his own downfall. Mike promises Adam's responsible, disapproving sister Brooke (Cody Horn), whose apartment is Adam's temporary home, to look after him, but Mike has his own issues, figuring out his finances when he can't get a loan and realizing he won't be thirty and stripping forever.

Soderbergh has such a diverse, unpredictable filmography, darting from a wide-scope, Robert Altman-esque mosaic of the War on Drugs (2000's "Traffic"), to glossy heist escapism (2001's "Ocean Eleven" and its sequential 2004 and 2007 sequels), to an experimental look into an escort's life (2009's "The Girlfriend Experience"), to a badass hitwoman-on-the-run thriller (this year's "Haywire"). Now with "Magic Mike," it has the marketing of a mainstream product but the relaxed, low-key pacing of a smaller film. For those tired of seeing objectified women treated as pieces of meat, "Magic Mike" reverses the sex, putting the bodies in money-stuffed G-strings. Aside from 1997's sweet, funny British crowd-pleaser "The Full Monty," there has never been another nationwide-distributed, non-X-rated film to introduce audiences to the world of male stripping. But stripping away the oiled-up pecs and abs (which the film delivers plenty of), the film never judges its characters and treats them with enough intelligence.

Mike strips because it pays the bills, and he just so happens to be good at it, but doesn't want the disreputable job to define him either. Generally taking after 1977's "Saturday Night Fever," 1997's adult-film industry expose "Boogie Nights," and a busboy (Ryan Phillippe) snorting coke and humping his way to the top of Studio 54 in 1998's "54," the story's trajectory for Adam is never really in question: The Kid will rise and fall with the help of drugs, thugs, booze, and a bad girl (Riley Keough) with a pet pig. But what's in store for Mike is less certain. We know he's a good egg, not just a himbo, who plays big brother to Adam and wants to hang up his thong, the initially uncomfortable Brooke being a main catalyst for his eventual decision. Producer-screenwriter Reid Carolin's screenplay isn't completely revealing, but the drama is involving and colored inside the lines by the actors, and Soderbergh makes it fresh and non-judgmental.

For skeptics and cynics who have written off Tatum as a mere pound of beefcake before "21 Jump Street," the red-hot star proves that the proof is in the pudding here. He might be a beefcake, but with a skilled director and worthwhile material that plays to his strengths, he has swagger, presence, and actual acting chops (take note of his stammering final-act speech). Tatum flourishes in the part, using his hunky good looks and charisma to his advantage in making Mike a sympathetic guy. As Magic Mike on stage, he's confident and really knows how to work the stage with his cool, sexy street-gangsta' moves and backflips. Pettyfer, who has mostly been a handsome blank slate in "Beastly" and "I Am Number Four" up until now, is more apt to play the green, impressionable rookie who doesn't know what to do with himself as a sex symbol. Born to play the club's oily, past-his-prime-but-still-swingin' owner Dallas, McConaughey is perpetually shirtless and unctuous as usual, but calling back the "hey, hey, hey" mojo of David Wooderson in "Dazed and Confused," he's better than he's ever been in recent years. Dressed in a neon-yellow tank top/belly shirt and high-cut exercise shorts, McConaughey's training session on seductive dry-humping with The Kid is hilariously risqué.

As for the rest of the Xquisite troupe, we don't really get beefed-up characters, aside from their names and their themed stage acts. Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, and pro-wrestler Kevin Nash (a Mickey Rourke dead-ringer who can't dance) are mostly window dressing as Big Dick Richie, Ken, Tito, and Tarzan. They're all buff, but have so few notes to register besides on stage. Manganiello at least gets to be part of funny pre-show visual gags involving a sewing machine and an out-of-focus shot of him using a penis pump. Relative newcomer Horn, daughter of Warner Bros. President and COO Alan F. Horn, has a strong, interesting, and appealing presence as The Kid's sister Brooke, the no-nonsense voice of reason, that a promising future isn't out of her grasp. Her scenes with Tatum feel 100% naturalistic that their dialogue nearly seems unscripted; when he makes Horn laugh, it feels genuine and sweet. On the flip side of Brooke is Joanna, a soon-to-be-psychologist and Mike's go-to friends-with-benefits, sharply played by Olivia Munn. 

Acting as his own director of photography per usual, Soderbergh shoots in a yellow-tinted, '70s style (notice the old Warner Bros. logo) that vividly captures the steamy milieu of a strip club and steamy Tampa itself. Behind the scenes, the director creates an authentic, fly-on-the-wall atmosphere, the men sewing their thongs, primping, lifting, and shaving their legs while joking around. Then when the men actually perform, the style is more dynamic in the strip numbers, which are appropriately Village People-tacky, energetic, and fun without being seedy. With campy gyrating-in-your-face choreography and tearaway clothes, it's all about putting on a show after all. Soderbergh also gets right the pleasure and exhilaration of stripping in front of screaming women, which all of these men thrive on.

In spite of becoming a rather formulaic showbiz morality tale, "Magic Mike" is a smart, clear-eyed drama that takes an insider's look at a titillating profession that steadily grows less titillating. It's also a bait and switch, offering up the sexy Chippendales-style fantasy and the unsexy reality of business during a poor economy. So, both the dollar-bill-holding women and moviegoers interested in characters and actual storytelling go home happy. It's no deliciously overwrought, so-bad-it's-good melodrama like "Showgirls," but if Soderbergh's intention was to make the dream of stripping look temporarily fun and liberating, then sad and identity-consuming, "Magic Mike" is a terrific accomplishment. A dollar bill to anyone that can intelligently refute Channing Tatum's range now.

Grade: B +