Magic Mike

When I tell you that “Magic Mike” is about a male stripper who is played by talking beef slab Channing Tatum, who drew from his own pre-stardom experiences as a stripper to inspire the screenplay, you assume the movie is a wild party of sweaty thongs, dollar bills, screaming drunk women, and general bacchanalia. But when I tell you that “Magic Mike” is a Steven Soderbergh-directed drama about aging, self-destruction, and the recession, you envision something completely different.

Both descriptions are accurate — which is why preview screenings have been filled with people curious to see the latest Soderbergh movie, as well as those more interested in the bachelorette party side of things. (Take a guess which faction is louder.) I don’t know that either group will be completely satisfied, but “Magic Mike” does a better job of mixing Chippendales-style guilty pleasures with reality-based cautionary tales than you might expect.

To use a marketing phrase that Warner Bros. didn’t, Channing Tatum is Magic Mike, a 30-year-old Tampa entrepreneur who earns most of his income at an all-male revue but has dreams of bigger things. He’s skilled at crafting custom furniture, for example, and he has a roofing company. Given the right opportunities, or even just a reasonable bank loan, he could make something of himself. And he’ll need to. He knows he won’t be young forever. The club’s owner, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), once a stripper himself but now primarily an emcee, is a constant reminder of that.

The other performers in Mike’s troupe are not vital to the story, but they are named Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), and Richie (Joe Manganiello). The DJ, a fat and flamboyant drug enthusiast, is named Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias). The guys’ backstage interplay, often filmed with fly-on-the-wall long takes and overlapping dialogue, feels authentically jocular, somewhere between a Broadway theater dressing room and a frat house.

Into this world comes Adam (Alex Pettyfer), an unmotivated 19-year-old college dropout who’s been crashing at his sister Brooke’s (Cody Horn) apartment while waiting for something to fall into his lap. He didn’t have stripping in mind, but he takes to it like a duck to water when he is thrust onstage without warning like Elmer Fudd in one of those opera cartoons. Mike promises Brooke he’ll watch out for the kid — The Kid soon becomes his stage name — and protect him from the pitfalls of popularity.

Soderbergh has a blast staging the performance scenes, which are the non-full-monty variety that employ borderline-campy props, costumes, and choreography. (That, perhaps, is the chief difference between male and female stripper audiences: women like to see a show; men are just there for the nudity.) No judgments are made about the dancers or the women who lust after them. The environment isn’t portrayed as sleazy, or at least no more so than anything that happens in Tampa. It’s just fun!

The sleaze is offstage, where it is viewed at first with matter-of-factness — oh, hey, look, Mike’s girlfriend Joanna (Olivia Munn) loves recruiting a second girl for threeways! — but with increasing alarm. Adam gets reckless, as would any 19-year-old who suddenly finds himself a sex symbol, and Mike struggles to keep his promise to Brooke. The basic trajectory of the plot isn’t revelatory, but the screenplay (by producer Reid Carolin) offers a few tweaks in the way it handles it.

“Magic Mike” might be less sexy than you want a stripper movie to be, and less potent than a drama should be. It’s not “Boogie Nights” — but neither is it “Showgirls.” Soderbergh weaves back and forth between dizzying fantasy and harsh reality, and only sometimes captures the full impact of either one.

But it’s surprising how quietly dramatic some of the non-stripping scenes are, and how effective Tatum is in them. His scenes with Cody Horn, in particular, are naturalistic, almost documentary-like in their believability. Mike comes across as a smart dude, a decent bro, a talking beef slab with a good head on his waxed shoulders. Who’d have thought this film would be a showcase for Channing Tatum’s acting talent?

B (1 hr., 50 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity and sexuality, a lot of nudity, some drug use.)

Reprinted from