Mike (Channing Tatum), the title stud of Steven Soderbergh’s supersharp and blithely entertaining male-stripper movie Magic Mike, has a life that a lot of guys would probably envy. A hunky hard hat in Tampa, he spends his days lounging around his beach house, taking nonunion gigs as a roofer and — his passion — building ”custom furniture,” which is a lot less classy than it sounds (he designs things like glass tabletops propped up on a base of fire extinguishers). Mike fancies himself an entrepreneur, but really he’s just a hustler without a plan. At night, however, he becomes a king. At the Xquisite Male Dance Revue, a grimy little strip club for women, he goes out on stage in a variety of costumes (soldier, cop, B-boy), and after whipping the customers into a frenzy with his cool athletic dance moves, he sends them over the top by tearing his clothes off. His torso is beyond ripped — it’s the body of a superhero — but what seals the deal is the mad twinkle in his eye. It’s a look that says, ”I know you know how sexy I am, so let’s stop being nice. Let’s get it on!” Such is Mike’s magic that he could sleep with any woman in the place. On stage he’s selling his flesh, but off stage he’s living the dream. Or so he thinks.
From just about the moment that Chippendales launched in the late ’70s, the world of male strippers for women had a different tone than its female-burlesque counterpart. The more traditional male clubs, where women in platform heels and G-strings twirled themselves around poles, had been palaces of sin: dark, furtive, and driven by the dirty thrill of the forbidden. But when women started to gather for girls’ nights out to watch gyrating honchos strip down to their black bow ties, the mood was more festive — a guilt-free zone of loud, happy ogling. After centuries of being labeled the demure sex, women, it turned out, were more casual — and a lot less hung up — than men about getting a few vicarious kicks of lust.
Magic Mike takes its tone from that carefree, liberated spirit. Soderbergh, working from a script by Reid Carolin, ushers us into the backstage world of the Xquisite club, a genially tacky subculture of players, losers, and beefcake innocents whom the film observes with a shrewdness and detail to rival the hardcore-porn ”family” in Boogie Nights and the professional fighters in The Wrestler. When Mike heads into a Tampa dance club to troll for customers, he runs into Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a 19-year-old goof he met on a roofing job, and recruits ”the Kid” to be a stripper. Playing this sex-industry virgin, Pettyfer has a winningly flaky James Franco vibe, but he’s too remote to fully connect to as a character. The movie is Mike’s story, and Channing Tatum proves himself a true movie star. His Mike glides through the world with the ease of a god, and on stage he’s electrifying. But Tatum, like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, gives him glimmers of doubt and fear — anxiety about the future — that make him intensely sympathetic.
Directing in his clear-eyed, tartly deadpan style, Soderbergh regards Mike with a juicy blend of amusement and compassion. Bit by bit, the film adds up his life, from his sex-as-sport relationship with a psychology student (Olivia Munn) who shares his taste for threesomes to his spiky is it a romance? with Adam’s sister (Cody Horn) to his complex bond with Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the drawling stripper who owns the club. In a brilliant turn, McConaughey plays Dallas as a father figure, trainer-coach, and shady businessman who always keeps his real agenda out of sight. He’s trying to set up a club in Miami, and though he has promised Mike equity, each time he talks about it there’s a whiff of exploitation in the air. Magic Mike has a conventional structure, yet a teasing question percolates beneath: If selling yourself is as much fun as this movie makes it look, what could be wrong with it? The answer is that once you’ve sold yourself, losing yourself may not be far behind. A-