Steven Soderbergh makes movies about sexy subjects, then strips away the sexiness about them. He is fascinated by process, often to a clinical extent. Now he’s directed “Magic Mike,” about the world of male stripping.
Yes, the dance numbers themselves exude masculine, muscular heat — how could they not with Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer and Joe Manganiello strutting on stage in barely-there costumes? But Soderbergh and writer Reid Carolin take us behind the scenes and linger over the minutiae of these performers’ daily lives. They go thong shopping. They rehearse their routines. They lift weights backstage. Even the after-hours hook-ups with ladies from the audience feel like an obligatory step, like brushing your teeth before going to bed.
It all seems glamorous and thrilling at first for Pettyfer’s character, Adam, who becomes known as The Kid. A 19-year-old neophyte in this neon-colored world, he serves as our wide-eyed guide once the more established Mike (Tatum) recruits him to be a dancer at the Club Xquisite male revue. Comparisons to “Boogie Nights,” both for the structure and the sexual subject matter, are inevitable. But Soderbergh avoids the kind of high style and histrionics that marked Paul Thomas Anderson’s lurid look at the porn industry in the ’70s.
A more apt point of comparison would be the original “Sex & the City” movie; it’ll have a similar appeal for straight women and gay men in equal measure. This is a movie that’s tailor-made for groups of friends to get together and giggle and ogle at the spectacle of it all. And it is a lot of fun, but it’s also more substantial than you might expect, and more mundane.
Tatum, who’s also a producer on the film, understands the allure of this lifestyle: He lived it when he was The Kid’s age, briefly working as a male stripper before breaking into acting, and “Magic Mike” is kinda-sorta inspired by that time.
“Magic Mike” follows one long booze-infused summer as Mike, The Kid and their co-stars work the ladies while their boss, stripper-turned-club-owner Dallas (McConaughey), makes plans to expand to Miami. This is an excellent fit for McConaughey, who’s doing some of the best work of his career. All the swagger is there, but he’s also willing to show a darker and more dangerous side as he gets older, as if he isn’t so interested anymore in making us like him. And that actually makes him more likable.
Yes, “Magic Mike” is a bit of a formulaic cautionary tale about the perils of having too much, too soon. Mike helps keep this fantasy world grounded in truth; he strips — and works construction jobs and details cars — in the hopes of saving enough money to start his own business. There’s nothing magical or even sexy about that: it’s just the cold, hard reality of our time.
"Magic Mike" is rated R and is showing at College 9 and UEC Theater 12.