A few years ago, Steven Soderbergh made a movie called The Girlfriend Experience about a high-priced prostitute, in which he cast a porn star in the lead role. Instead of coming off like a stunt, his film turned out to be a serious, intelligent look at what it’s like to be in the sex trade. So it’s not surprising that his current Magic Mike takes a similar approach to male strippers, to even better effect.
The hot guy in the title is Mike (Channing Tatum), a stripper in Tampa who revels in the easy cash and easy women that his profession brings him but knows that he’s getting older and dreams of setting up his own custom-made furniture business. When he meets a teenager named Adam (Alex Pettyfer) at his day job at a construction site, Mike brings him into the strip club, first as a behind-the-scenes prop guy and then as onstage talent after one of the regular strippers is incapacitated. Adam’s protective sister Brooke (Cody Horn) is charmed by Mike but wary of the life that he’s drawing her little brother into.
Mike is a slab of beefcake who’s trying to prove that he’s something more than that. In that respect, he’s a lot like Channing Tatum. The role fits the actor perfectly, not just because it lets him bust some moves on the strip club floor but also because it takes advantage of his limitations, as in a late scene when Mike launches into a fumbling, inarticulate defense of himself that even he doesn’t believe, as Brooke points out. I wrote in these pages a few years ago that Tatum wouldn’t work as a leading man, but I’ve been proven wrong. The same athletic skills that get him cast in action thrillers serve him to much better effect both here and in 21 Jump Street, which showcased a wholly unexpected talent for slapstick comedy. Give me Tatum the goofy but sexy Everyman over Tatum the bland action hero or Tatum the soppy romantic lead any time.
The movie immerses us in the world of stripping in the first half and treats us to some tasty comic vignettes, the best one featuring Adam being coached by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), a former stripper-turned-club owner who rules over his fellow strippers like a philosopher-king. While the two men grind and gyrate into a gym mirror, Dallas yells encouragement: “You are the husband that they never had! You are that dreamboat guy who never came along! … Now go over there and fuck that mirror!” The story does fall apart in the second half, giving way to a rushed and contrived storyline in which Adam gets in trouble with drugs and drug dealers. This keeps Magic Mike from being a great movie but not from being an enjoyable yarn with enough to engage even those of us with minimal interest in watching hot guys take their clothes off.
Starring Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, and Cody Horn. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Reid Carolin. Rated R.