There’s no denying that Magic Mike is a film about the world of male stripping. Filled with naked, muscular flesh and screaming fans clamoring for more of it, it’s planted firmly in the world of men who enact over-the-top fantasies of masculinity to make a living, one dollar bill at a time. But it’s as much about just that: making a living, one dollar bill at a time. The characters in Magic Mike seem to enjoy stripping well enough, but it’s no one’s first career choice. When the job goes well, they can more than make ends meet, but making it go well requires constant effort. It’s work, in other words, a means to an end where the end keeps receding a little further in the distance—in part thanks to some on-the-job distractions unique to the profession.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a screenplay by Reid Carolin, Magic Mike was partly inspired by the youthful experiences of star Channing Tatum, whose early career included time as a stripper in Tampa after a failed stint attending college on a football scholarship. But if Tatum has a surrogate in the film, it isn’t the eponymous Magic Mike (Tatum), but the one played by Alex Pettyfer, an adrift 19-year-old who sleeps on his sister’s couch and drifts from one under-the-table manual-labor job to the next with seemingly no ambition. At one of those jobs, he meets Tatum, a supervisor at a roofing job who seems to have more going for him than most people he meets. Bumming around Tampa’s nightlife-rich Ybor City neighborhood, Pettyfer bumps into Tatum and asks for some help getting into a club. Tatum agrees on the condition that Pettyfer help him out with an unspecified task. Before the guy he’s soon to rename “The Kid” can balk, Tatum asks, “Do you want to be inside or outside?”
That question resonates throughout the film, though there’s really only one answer: Outside is for losers. But some places are harder to get inside than others. Pettyfer quickly finds it isn’t too difficult to get into Xquisite, the club where Mike works as the lead dancer in an all-male revue. After all, he’s got the looks, the other dancers seem to think he’s okay, and when one of Tatum’s co-stars overindulges and can’t take to the stage, Pettyfer assumes the spotlight for himself and does just fine, for a first-timer. Soon, he’s dancing most nights, and sometimes partying with Tatum until dawn, none of which meets with the approval of his sister, Cody Horn. Tatum assures her he’ll take care of her little brother, and delivers that assurance with the charm that’s let him get as far in life as he has, though he’s probably wondering whether it’s a promise he can keep.
In many respects, Tatum is just as lost. He has a relationship, of sorts, with a sexually adventurous grad student (Olivia Munn) that seems largely defined by their success in putting together three-ways. Stripping and construction are just two arms of an entrepreneurial empire that includes auto detailing and his main love, custom furniture, but the cash he’s piled up in the home safe of his suspiciously upscale-looking house never piles high enough to convince his bank to back him. So it’s back to the stage, for one more group number set to “It’s Raining Men,” and one more spotlight number featuring some remarkably athletic dancing (obviously performed by Tatum without the help of a double).
Like The Girlfriend Experience, Magic Mike doubles as an of-the-moment film about life in a down economy, so much so that it would play like a bait-and-switch if it didn’t just as thoroughly deliver as a movie about stripping. As with Traffic, Contagion, Oceans 11, and other films, Soderbergh has a keen interest in how industries—drug trafficking, disease control, casinos—work, and narrowing this film’s focus to the club’s tiny economy. Matthew McConaughey plays Xquisite’s owner, Dallas. He’s largely put his stripping days behind him, but he presides over the club like a beefcake version of the MC from Cabaret, setting just the right tone for the club by mixing undeniable sexiness with cheeseball charm. There is no better actor for such a part than McConaughey, who inhabits the role while occasionally using it to send up his own public image. (Bongos make an appearance, as does the phrase “All right, all right, all right,” and when McConaughey wears a shirt, it usually isn’t a whole shirt.) Offstage, McConaughey puts on a show similar to the one he and his revue perform onstage: He offers his dancers enough to keep them coming back for more, along with the tease that if they play their cards right, he may let them go all the way by offering a financial stake in a big new club in Miami.
Soderbergh is so good at portraying the business of stripping—and the business of filming the dance sequences—that some of the human elements get a little lost. Magic Mike begins refreshingly free of melodrama. In spite of its prurient offerings and casual backstage drug use, Xquisite doesn’t seem terribly seedy, and Pettyfer is levelheaded enough to resist temptation. Then, as if following the cues of every other rise-and-fall film, vice arrives in the form of a temptress (Elvis granddaughter Riley Keough, toting a potbellied pig) and a handful of pills. After subverting expectations in the film’s first half, Soderbergh spends the second half living up to them as both Pettyfer and Tatum lose their way. And it doesn’t help that Tatum’s path back involves an underdeveloped relationship with Horn.
Yet, as usual, Soderbergh’s way of filming often trumps what he’s filming. Few filmmakers know how to play to the strengths of modern digital cameras as well as Soderbergh, who served as his own DP under his usual nom de camera, “Peter Andrews.” Magic Mike looks great, and Soderbergh’s offhand approach to composition cuts through some of the clichés. Late in the film, as Horn and Pettyfer talk about his downward spiral, he lies flat in the backseat of her car. Soderbergh gets the shot by turning the camera on its side, getting all the disorientation he needs through the simplest means offered by a confined space and a moving vehicle.
He has able support in his cast, too. McConaughey steals scenes, but Pettyfer quietly underplays his character’s self-destruction—imploding in ways that others might not notice if they weren’t looking, or weren’t inclined to look—and Tatum ably proves he can carry a movie. Combining babyfaced sincerity with outsized sex appeal, he makes it easy to see how Magic Mike could succeed as a stripper, while showing the limitations of those charms. He plays Mike as a character starting to realize that a good portion of his life is a dream, and he’ll have to wake up if he wants to start living in the real world. The film eventually takes to making that point with all the subtlety of a bucket of ice water. It’s effective, though overly direct in those moments, but it’s even better when capturing the appeal of an existence buoyed by screams and floating currency. It shows that those living that life are subject to the same laws of economic gravity as anyone else who has to work for a living.