“Male stripper movie with a pedigree” sounds like a phrase that never would have been uttered before the creation of Magic Mike, a look at the inner workings of a profitable Tampa, Florida adult nightclub from star and former male stripper Channing Tatum and acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh. It might be tempting to say this film wouldn’t be as much of a stretch for Tatum as it would be for the man who made Traffic, Che, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but it actually fits very nicely into the director’s latter day output in displaying the ins and outs of various occupations. Granted, it’s not an intense exploration into the seedier side of playing private dancer to paying customer’s escapist fantasies, but it’s an assured piece of summertime fluff made by a filmmaker who generally seems to be cutting loose.
Tatum stars as the titular conjurer (probably named so because his clothes seem to be constantly disappearing), a hard working jack-of-all-trades who makes the majority of his money hip-hop dancing on stage at the ludicrously named Xquisite as part of an elite team of male performers affectionately dubbed “the cock rocking kings of Tampa” by their slightly mental boss, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). One day on a job site, Mike meets a brash younger man named Adam (Alex Pettyfer) who has no real profitable skills, a disrespectful attitude towards authority, and still lives with his sister (Cody Horn). After some coaxing and trial by fire, the dancers allow Adam into their world when Mike begins to mentor him, but the young and naive Adam continues to look for easy ways to make money, putting him at odds with his new best friend’s only slightly more stabilized world view.
Tatum naturally embodies Mike’s bro-like tendencies, but he distils them into a likable persona of a man who generally wants to do the right thing. He’s the typical everyman in his mid-20s who thinks he knows what he wants out of life (in this case to have one stable job manufacturing artsy furniture), but he’s frustrated with his inability to make his dreams a reality. Conversely, he sees within Adam (played nicely as an almost irredeemable little shit by Pettyfer) someone that he used to be not that long ago, but he doesn’t fully know exactly how to tell him he’s screwing up. Maybe Tatum’s performance here isn’t fully on the level of the hilariously self-deprecating turn he had in 21 Jump Street since he actually has to act (somewhat) dramatically in this one, but it’s pretty darn close. It’s hard to not imagine the character and the actor similarly cracking up over having to dress like an overtanned John Cena while grinding across a seemingly lubed up stage to Ginuwine’s “My Pony.”
The supporting cast also yields some surprises, especially in the case of the pitch-perfect McConaughey who exudes equal parts sleaze, corniness, and menace sometimes within the same scene. Cody Horn also benefits from Soderbergh’s almost verite style of direction giving an appropriately low key performance, especially in her scenes opposite Tatum. Even the rest of the dancers get their moments with some pretty varied notable faces from True Blood’s Joe Manganiello (as the requisite addict of the squad), Glee regular Matt Bomer (as the cosplay performer), and former wrestler Kevin Nash (as a lumbering disgrace of a dancer nicknamed Tarzan), but these guys are fairly far in the background of the story.
As he’s shown almost as far back as Erin Brockovich through Traffic and The Girlfriend Experience and up to last year’s Contagion, Soderbergh has shown himself as a filmmaker who revels in depicting the inner workings of any particular system. He doesn’t so much make “films” in the classical sense anymore, but rather he makes mostly fine crafted procedurals in how to do a job and how do it/not do it well. The relaxed setting here allows for him to stop thinking to an even greater degree than the over thought and half-baked Tatum co-starer Haywire earlier this year. It might seem like a project that’s beneath him, but every frame of the film looks and moves just like any other Soderbergh movie even if the screenplay from Reid Carolin (who also appears as a dancer and who loosely based the film on young Tatum’s personal experiences) suggests a very standard and static rise and fall story.
Magic Mike positions itself as a crowd pleaser, and it succeeds at being equal parts amusing and escapist, but also with a genuinely great actor at the core of the film who knows the audience is largely laughing at the ridiculous things he has to do on stage. Say what you will about Channing Tatum, but the man knows how to pick his roles better than almost any other working actor today. The film largely holds up thanks to his involvement and aside from having as assured a director as Soderbergh, the movie couldn’t possibly exist without him.