Matthew McConaughey grabs his crotch in the first scene of Magic Mike. A minute later Channing Tatum’s beefy buttocks take over the screen as his character stumbles his way to the bathroom following a night of rampant decadence. Steven Soderbergh’s disarmingly sweet-natured peek into the world of male stripping wastes no time in whetting the audience’s appetite for suggestive gyrations, kitschy dance numbers and copious displays of cherubic bare asses. And for well over an hour, this heady concoction works like a charm.
Before it loses its way – and boy, does it ever – Magic Mike, which opens Friday in wide release, is most memorable, not for its titillating flashes of skin, but for the lived-in, casually insightful glimpse it gives us into the daily bump-and-grind of these men who take their clothes off for a living. Up front and center is Tatum, who gets a producer credit and whose eight-month stint in a Tampa all-male revue in the late nineties provided the inspiration for this film the same way that the Demi Moore/Gary Oldman adaptation of The Scarlet Letter stayed true to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. This movie reflects real life in a manner that recalls Inglourious Basterds’ historically accurate depiction of Adolf Hitler’s final days.
I was ready to pounce on the film for its nearly absolute de-gaying of its lurid subject matter, its nearly pathological refusal to acknowledge the industry’s gay-for-pay elements. Soderbergh, to my relief, shies away from the “I’m no homo” platitudes that could have easily plagued Magic Mike in lesser hands. There’s nary a gay-panic joke in costar/producer Reid Carolin’s loosely constructed screenplay. Instead, the movie weaves a simple story of male bonding and the all-American pursuit to make a buck while strutting your junk in a thong. (As far as a full-frontal glance at those bulges, you’ll have to make do with a hilarious out-of-focus boner.)
Michael Lane (Tatum), blue-collar entrepreneur, works in construction and runs his auto detailing business by day. After the sun goes down, however, the moonlighting jock sheds his sweaty work clothes, and his inhibitions, as Club Xquisite’s star performer. Prior to one of his evening gigs, Mike runs into Adam (Beastly’s Alex Pettyfer), the 19-year-old college dropout with whom he retiled a roof earlier that day. Sensing star quality in the disheveled slacker, Mike talks the cash-strapped Adam into helping him out at the ladies-only establishment where he makes a couple of hundred bucks a night showing off his hip hop moves and wrapping his muscled legs around some very satisfied patrons.
Dallas (McConaughey), Xquisite’s owner, MC and reigning queen bee, welcomes Adam into the fold after Mike practically shoves the kid onstage following a last-minute lineup change. The show must go on, after all, and in Magic Mike, the show does go on in outrageously choreographed fashion. Soderbergh wants you to look at the seams, the awkward, not-quite-professional vibe of these dancers’ stage antics. (Our first glimpse of Joe Manganiello shows True Blood’s strapping werewolf sewing his skimpy gold outfit backstage while wearing granny glasses. His character’s stage name: Big Dick Richie.) The Oscar-winning director captures the euphoria these working stiffs provoke under the spotlight, and even though he observes this territory through rose-tinted glasses, he resists the temptation to glamorize it Boogie Nights-style. He begets the sordid bastard child of American Gigolo and Showgirls, with a sprinkle of All About Eve’s dressing room power plays to keep things interesting.
If there’s a sour note in Magic Mike’s first – and most enjoyable – hour, it’s Adam’s sensible older sister Brooke (Cody Horn), a career-driven doctor’s assistant and the movie’s resident stick-in-the-mud. I kept waiting for the sparks to fly between Mike and this career-oriented girl, but the up-and-coming actress makes Tatum look like the paragon of onscreen versatility. Brooke’s wet-blanket prissiness represents Carolin’s feeble attempt to insert a disapproving counterpoint to Mike’s good-ol’-boy brand of hedonism, but without palpable screen chemistry between the two romantic leads, the character is dead weight, a superfluous love interest in a movie that has very little need for her.
Much better executed is McConaughey’s portrayal of a voracious businessman who encourages team spirit but whose main priority is worshipping at the altar of the almighty dollar. (This mother hen values her possessions.) I wouldn’t be surprised if the way that Dallas allows Soderbergh to explore America’s get-rich-quick mindset was what motivated the director to make Magic Mike in the first place. The movie takes us inside Dallas’ gaudy, extravagantly decorated residence and devotes a considerable amount of screen time to show how this P.T. Barnum of adult entertainment believes the pursuit of capital to be the be-all and end-all to a fulfilling life. By contrast, the filmmakers treat Mike’s real passion, his dream of turning his skill at making custom furniture into a profitable way to make ends meet, like a quixotic yet noble endeavor.
The easygoing rapport that Soderbergh elicits from his ensemble cast gave me false hope that Magic Mike would eschew the more shopworn, and some might argue inevitable, aspects of the disreputable-profession narrative, but the film winds up turning Adam, who starts out as an intriguing blank slate, into a walking cliché. It’s almost as if Soderbergh and Carolin felt obligated to make the movie more serious in order to bring their slice-of-life portrait of ordinary men leading sordid lives to a logical conclusion.
Once the film is saddled with depicting how Adam becomes a trouble magnet, the clinical distance that has marred Soderbergh’s recent work rears its ugly head. Even worse, the crises the characters endure feel like they were lazily cobbled together at an eleventh-hour brainstorming session. They belong in a straight-to-DVD thriller, and they deprive Magic Mike of its pixie dust. The more the drama heats up, the more Soderbergh tunes out, and as the film limps to its shrug-worthy resolution, you feel his dispassionate gaze hovering above his dancing studs. He stops caring, so why should we?