By Michael Wilmington
The art and commerce of striptease – at least as we see it in director Steven Soderbergh and producer/star Channing Tatum’s “Magic Mike” – is entertainment in a very elemental (let’s not say stripped-down) form. The performer takes off her/his clothes and dances suggestively. Audience members, if they choose, holler rude, lewd lines, drink themselves into a stupor and sometimes shower the stripper with bills.
Technique is helpful, but not as crucial as looks or stage presence – both of which Tatum must have had in his brief career, in his teens, as a male exotic dancer. The dancing doesn’t have to be particularly good, but it’s best when the dancer has a sense of humor or drama. (I guess Tatum must have had those too.)
The well-upholstered Tatum, who plays Magic Mike, star dancer dude at the raunchy Tampa club Xquisite, is also one of the film’s producers. (“Magic Mike” must be one of the few movies where a producer has to take off his clothes and get money jammed into his thong as part of his duties.) His producing partner Reid Carolin wrote the script (I assume based largely on Tatum’s memories) and plays the part of Paul. The plot Tatum and Carolin have come up with loosely resembles “All About Eve” crossed with “Boogie Nights,” “Showgirls” and Christina Aguilera’s “Burlesque” – with male strippers, mostly without bitchery.
Here’s what happens. Tatum as Magic Mike, ab-happy king of the strip hill at Xquisite, befriends college dropout Adam aka “The Kid” (Alex Pettyfer) on a construction job, introduces him to Xquisite head honcho Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), and gets him a job at the club. The Kid’s fresh looks and what-am-I-doing-here? attitude make him an immediate sensation. Meanwhile, Magic Mike, who wants to go legit with a custom-made furniture business, also gets a yen for Adam’s sister, sensible Brooke (Cody Horn).
The Kid’s star rises. Things get darker. There’s a lot of sex and nudity, including an orgy with a pig wandering around. (You suspect something like this once happened somewhere.) Dallas wants to take the act to Miami. The club deejay, good-natured and chubby Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias), peddles Ecstasy on the side. Adam loses a lot of drugs and dough. Hey, stripping isn’t all “woman, money and good times,” as one character puts it. Some mornings you wake up with a pig staring you in the face.
“Magic Mike” struck me as realistic in its depiction of the whole club milieu (not that I’ve done any research), but as somewhat phony in its story – though the dialogue is periodically sharp and the acting is much better than usual for this kind of show. (Remember “Showgirls”?)
There’s one knockout performance, by McConaughey as the affable, energetic and utterly shameless club czar and sometime stripper. McConaughey plays it strictly for sleaze and laughs, but he also suggests a real person: a sleazy, funny one. If the entire movie were as entertaining as McConaughey – or a bit darker than Tatum, Carolin and Soderbergh seem to want to make it – it would have been better.
Tatum, as mentioned, has the looks and presence for Mike, but not quite the magic. He does a fairly good job, and his onstage backflips are awesome, but I thought he spent too much time seducing the camera, James Deaning it up and getting us to like him, and not enough digging into the guy and making him real. It’s a very self-conscious “good” performance.
Pettyfer does an even more narcissistic job, and I’m not sure the fact that The Kid is supposed to be narcissistic and irresponsible is much of an excuse. Sister Brooke is a typical decent-onlooker part, which she does OK. People who like the dancing won’t care all that much about the acting – and that’s probably a good part of what made the movie such an opening-weekend hit.
So why did a sometimes brilliant and unpigeonholeable filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh want to make this movie? Well, sex, if not lies and videotape, has usually worked for him, and it’s always good news when a gifted moviemaker – especially one like Soderbergh, who really takes chances – gets a financial success. Obviously, he likes to work, likes the whole job of making movies. (He also photographed and edited this one.) He likes working with good-looking actors, and “Magic Mike” allows him to twist around sex roles for men the way “Haywire” shuffled them around for a woman (Gina Carano). Maybe he liked the music. And maybe he secretly harbored the desire to do a pig-at-the-orgy scene.