“Magic Mike” is certain to disappoint a lot of people. Anyone familiar with Steven Soderbergh knew that his latest work certainly couldn’t be the sexy, slick male stripper fantasy that Warner Bros’ marketing campaign has made it out to be. Those expecting a semi-erotic, amusing romp likely won’t leave satisfied by the 10 minutes or so worth of stripping scenes. The bigger bummer, however, is film fans anticipating a fascinating look at a sordid profession largely ignored by Hollywood will also find themselves without anything to rave about. There’s doubtlessly a lot one could learn about the world of male stripping, but little of it appears in “Magic Mike.”
Channing Tatum delivers his best performance to date as the eponymous Mike, a character supposedly based on the actor’s own stint as a stripper in Tampa. He comes across as earnest regarding the prospect of moving up life’s ladder, saying, as many movie strippers do, that his current occupation is just a rung on the ladder to success. Yet there doesn’t appear to be much to Mike after one notes his profession(s) and outward interest in upward mobility. Those expecting a complex rationale behind his colorful night job will be surprised to discover that he strips because the money flows, the work’s easy, and the parties afterwards are off the hook. I suppose this represents valid character insight on behalf of Soderbergh, Tatum, and screenwriter Reid Carolin, but who wouldn’t have been able to guess it?
Mike works at the Xquisite, a sleazy joint with fairly good choreography. Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the club’s owner, comes off as Mike plus 10 extra years and decent business expertise. Mike brings in Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a 19-year-old with a good physique and obvious emotional issues. Through Adam’s eyes we enter Xquisite, but it’s Tatum’s story and show, so we follow him for the majority.
Soderbergh’s trademark detachment proves illusory, his story steered towards the sort of banal conclusion expected of a filmmaker that doesn’t have his pedigree. There’s surprisingly little detail about the nightly routine of being a male stripper, which here is depicted as half self-aware gag, half outlet for sexual fantasy. The audience meets an array of dancers at the Xquisite, but unless one recognizes the actors from other movies and TV shows, they all blend together, an assortment of muscled dimwits having a good time. The comparisons that “Magic Mike” may receive to Paul Thomas Anderson’s genius 1997 film “Boogie Nights” are superficial at best, as, tone and directorial styles aside, that film allowed the viewer an immersion into the industry. “Magic Mike” feels more like a backstage pass — a few fleeting minutes with the “talent” before, during, and after the shows.
But this isn’t to say that Soderbergh’s strengths aren’t apparent. The filmmaker aptly infuses the proceedings with signs of the intense nervousness of the current recession, as he similarly did with his other recent sex worker film, “The Girlfriend Experience.” That the realities and threats of economic downturn have dimmed one’s prospects of advancement in America provides an intelligent framework for Soderbergh to explore the intersection of morals and work. Mike, Dallas, and Adam all have scenes where they discuss business prospects with varying degrees of knowledge and skill, their involvement with this immoral business highlighting the ways in which one’s essence can be reduced to a dollar value. These passages are when Soderbergh and screenwriter Carolin are at their most effective. The film’s best scene shows Mike attempting to acquire a small business loan with no credit and a stack of cash, attempting to flatter a flustered loan agent who’s clearly unable to help.
Unfortunately, the film as a whole proves uninterested in such seriousness, preferring to unconvincingly linger on Mike’s fixation with Brooke (Cody Horn), Adam’s sister. She’s a nice girl, played by Horn with the same mixture of sulkiness and beauty that has come to define Kristen Stewart’s performances. On the same token, Mike never seems like anything other than an affable, alright guy, the sort of part firmly in Tatum’s wheelhouse. But he’s a pro stripper and an amateur hustler, a practitioner of lewd dances and frequent indulger of the ménage a trios. So when the closing thesis of “Magic Mike” suggests that all a man like Mike needs to be righted is the love of a pure-hearted woman, Soderbergh himself clearly doesn’t believe it, and thus neither do we.