I’m secure enough in my masculinity not only to watch the Steven Soderbergh/Channing Tatum collaboration Magic Mike but to say – after emerging from the sweaty, loud, and yes, sexy experience – that it’s actually a hell of a film. While it may be tempting for those who have not seen the film to write it off as the cinematic equivalent to a Bachelorette Party at a B-level Chippendales, Soderbergh, Tatum and his supporting cast, and screenwriter Reid Carolin successfully balance the greased pecs and studded banana hammocks with both heart and warts and all sensibility. The picture, like its star, refuses to allow itself to be defined by its flashy surface. It forces us to confront the men behind the personas and the day to day reality they inhabit.
Based upon the experiences of Tatum (who was a male stripper in his younger days), Magic Mike provides a cautionary tale of “The Kid” (Alex Pettyfer), a down on his luck 19-year-old who lives with his sister (Cody Horn) while trying to make ends meet on a roofing construction crew in Tampa. When the roofing gig turns sour, The Kid finds a helping hand in a co-worker: the dapper, older Mike (Tatum). Mike gives The Kid a ride home and, when the two connect at a club that evening, invites him to supplement his income at Xquisite, the strip club where he earns his real bread and butter (in singles form) as “Magic Mike.”
At Xquisite, The Kid quickly moves from being a prop boy to a featured performer and discovers a camaraderie that exists amongst the performers that is nurtured by the club’s owner, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), in the form a partnering percentage. Mike takes him under his wing and, with Dallas’s help, teaches him how to dance, act, and (un)dress. Slowly, like Dirk Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, The Kid loses himself to women and drugs and discovers that life behind the bright lights and loud music isn’t quite as appealing as it seems. Strippers have a difficult time getting bank loans; strippers grow old and throw their backs out lifting up bachelorettes; strippers have to deal with skeptical significant others and/or superficial relationships.
What makes Magic Mike work so incredibly well is the moral balance that Soderbergh takes towards his material. When the life is fun, it’s a blast. Smoothly choreographed strip numbers, a very charismatic Tatum (who can dance just as well as he can carry on a charming, self-effacing conversation with a love interest) and McConaughey (whose southern swagger is properly honed here to great, and often hilarious, effect), and a barrage of beautiful women (including Olivia Munn) never let the viewer forget the appeal of the lifestyle. Yet, waking up the morning after is often akin to a cold shower . . . especially when you can’t remember your conquest’s name or you piss off a client’s other half. At the end of the day, Soderbergh and the film argue, stripping and the lifestyle it enables is a choice that is not inherently good or bad; it depends on the person. The greatest gift the film offers is that it never lets us forget that personal aspect, the aspect that prompts Mike to say “Am I Magic Mike right now? I’m not my lifestyle.”