Steven Soderbergh and a movie about male dancers are two things most commonly found on opposite sides of a video store (or completely different categories on your Netflix recommendations, if we’re being modern), but behold “Magic Mike,” a film that is both, and a film that works surprisingly well.
To start, the “Magic Mike” script achieves a level of genuine reality more convincing than any “reality” television on MTV. The entire film is so sincere — even modest — in its approach, so much so that at times you might suspect Soderbergh’s shooting a documentary.
Mike (Channing Tatum) is the headliner at an all-male dance revue in Tampa Bay, but he considers himself an entrepreneur as he is saving up to start his own custom furniture business. At one of his day jobs installing roof tile, he eyes a 19-year-old (Alex Pettyfer) named Adam and takes him under his wing, introducing him to the male stripper world.
As Mike and Adam bond and we’re treated to a behind-the-scenes look at the art of the striptease and the men who perform it, “Magic Mike” gets by on this fresh, transparent approach. Soderbergh knows the stripping part has our attention, so he’s unafraid to linger a bit longer in scenes in which not much is happening except that we’re getting to know the characters. As conflict starts to build, we then feel immersed in the challenges in Mike and Adam’s lives to some extent, though the drama never gets quite tense enough.
Regardless of what works in terms of story, Tatum gives the best performance of his career to date. He seems as though he’s just being himself on camera, which may in part be true as the Reid Carolin’s script is loosely based on Tatum’s experiences as a male stage dancer. Nonetheless, he’s so smooth and natural, especially when his character is asked to joke around, but even when the more weighty material arrives at the end.
None of the other characters gets that full range of character development, even Pettyfer’s Adam. The character isn’t written to really struggle with his huge life transition from college dropout to exotic dancer, but rather to complicate Mike’s relationship to stripping as Mike’s asked by Adam’s older sister, the straight-laced Brooke (Cody Horn), to look after him. Pettyfer hits the more timid notes really well at the beginning, but as his character unravels his performance goes with it.
The more things heat up in terms of plot, the more the flaws of “Magic Mike” come exposed, even though the entire film engages from start to finish. Someone not as sharp and creative as Soderbergh would’ve likely delivered the material in a flat, uninspired way given the amount of plain dialogue, but there’s no critiquing what didn’t happen. Instead, we get everything from wider angles and longer takes to different perspectives and colors that create mood and tension in an otherwise true-to-life and potentially boring story.
The relationship between Mike and Brooke, or rather their sexual tension that doesn’t amount to anything until it’s basically too late, is probably its weakest subplot. A medical assistant, Brooke has little respect for what Mike does, but only so that Carolin’s script can preach a little bit about how we shouldn’t make assumptions about people who strip to make money. The two don’t really belong together, but the script is very into the idea that the fun-loving stripper guy and the stiff nurse-in-training should fall for one another.
Yet there’s a lot to enjoy about “Magic Mike,” which you could say ends up better than a film practically pandering to women ought to be. One of the less apparent strengths is how well Soderbergh captures the power of the striptease as explained to us by Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas, the club owner. The dance sequences aren’t used purely for sex appeal; between the actors dancing and the extras going wild over them, you can start to understand how self-empowering dancing up on a stage can be and you might actually start to envy the confidence they exude while performing. The film treats exotic dancing with a degree of reverence; it’s not a gimmick purely meant to sell tickets — not in this film.
Although it swings and misses on the payoff, “Magic Mike” depicts honest characters in honest situations behaving as people actually do, creating a unique and never-before-seen context for a drama that boils down to a story of soul searching, about choosing between the easier road or the harder, more fulfilling one when it comes to being the person you want to be.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Reid Carolin
Starring: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn, Matthew McConaughey