Just how good a stripper is Channing Tatum? At the Magic Mike screening I attended, there weren’t just wives but also husbands applauding his eye-popping stage routines. I may or may not have been one of them.
Rarely do you see an actor harness such physical energy on the screen, much less dance at this level of intensity while converting raw muscle mass into raging sex appeal. But Tatum is the real McCoy, oozing charisma here as a one-man firestorm who plays along with the strip club script (embodying firemen, construction workers, soldiers, rappers) before erupting into a blur of breakdancing, groin thrusts and flying clothing. For a short time earlier in his life, Tatum was, in fact, a stripper and his confidence is palpable. There are sequences here so electrifying and infectious that it’s easy to see why Warner Bros. (a division of Time Warner Inc.) devised a marketing campaign built entirely around a greased-up Tatum and Matthew McConaughey regaling hordes of screaming women. But in reality, Magic Mike is far less interested in those spotlighted abs than in the lies we tell ourselves in and around that stage. As he’s proven throughout his career, director Steven Soderbergh is intrigued by the shifting moral limits that influence our decisions, and it’s outside the confines of this Florida club where Magic Mike makes its most provocative statements.
Mike (Tatum) and Adam (Alex Pettyfer) are two strippers at opposite ends of their career. Mike is the established pro, the 30-year-old headliner of a Tampa all-male revue who knows exactly how to work the crowd, and, far more importantly, rustle up new business from the mainstream bar next door. Adam is the outsider who is introduced to Mike on a construction job — an aimless 19-year-old couch surfer who is sick of being broke, living with his sister, and overcoming a botched football career.
(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of 21 Jump Street)
It’s Mike who brings Adam into the revue, giving the broke guy a chance to earn a few quick bucks running props (and penis pumps) backstage. But when one of the pros collapses that first evening, leaving a hole in the night’s program, wrangler/owner Dallas (McConaughey) gives the insecure young hunk the chance to be a star. In stark contrast to Mike’s whirling theatrics, Adam plods down the stage with little finesse. But his chest is toned, and the girls are quick with the cash and three months down the line, Adam the Stripper is thanking Mike for bringing all this fast money and these easy women into his world.
If Adam lies to himself about his job by boasting that at least he’s finally paying rent and getting laid, Mike’s inner rationalization is that he’s less an erotic dancer than an “entrepreneur” engaged in raising capital. He meticulously straightens every last dollar bill that he earns on the stage, and stockpiles his savings in hopes of launching a handmade furniture company (appropriately enough, we never really see him craft any furniture). When he’s not dancing, Mike is also helping Dallas to manage the club’s books, or telling his boss about his dream of having equity in the business when the small-time strip joint makes its long-anticipated move to the prime time of Miami Beach.
Mike is as bold a dreamer as he is a dancer, and Soderbergh (who also worked with Tatum on Haywire) ensures that we spend enough time amid his swagger before we witness him come crashing back to Earth. Magic’s extended reality check begins when he’s turned down for a small business loan. Despite his sizable wad of cash, and his charming demeanor, his credit score doesn’t mesh with his flushed loan officer’s regulations. Mike’s introspection escalates when he meet’s Adam’s sister Brooke (newcomer Cody Horn). She finds Mike charming and exciting, but is also worried about the lifestyle that he’s leading Adam into — and utterly incapable of looking beyond his profession.
(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Haywire, another Soderbergh/Tatum collaboration)
That professional isolation is reflected in just about every aspect of Mike’s life. In between colorful, exuberant and deliberately cheesy strip-show sequences, Soderbergh gradually plunges the viewer deeper into Mike’s closed bubble of reality. His evenings are all business on the stage, followed by wild parties with his anonymous customers. His days are spent shaking off hangovers or partying with his co-workers. We see how his job comes to define his life and shield him from alternative points of view. In Brooke, though, Mike finds someone who questions his routines, his business partnerships, and his general lack of entrepreneurial progress.
Tatum marshals a breakthrough performance in Magic Mike. That he commands the screen as seducer and performer is hardly a surprise, given his turns in Step Up and The Vow, but more notable is his quiet charm and insecurity as he works to impress Brooke. The film’s shortfall is its lack of story arc, or emotional transformation. Divided into three monthly chapters, Magic Mike makes abrupt hard turns that tend to bypass pivotal emotional revelations. Clarity comes a bit too quickly to Mike, though Tatum does the best with what he’s given to preserve a character study from derailing into emotional turmoil.
Where the film thrives, though, is in its dissection of a sexually charged atmosphere. Indeed, the most subversive facet of Soderbergh’s approach to the subject matter is the way he slowly inoculates us to the “magic” of Club Xquisite. At first electrifying, Mike’s stage performances become increasingly predictable and then almost routine, as we begin to see beyond the seductive performance to the repetitive, almost mechanical movements underneath. It’s not that the paying customers are displeased — they clearly relish the escape, and seem happy with their purchase — but just that we can see more easily through the façade. The same goes for Brooke, Dallas and, eventually, Mike himself. And though Tatum’s moves will put butts in the seats, it’s his blues that brings a surprisingly dramatic twist to all that sweaty flesh.
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