Ladies are gonna love “Magic Mike,” a lively male-stripper meller inspired by Channing Tatum’s late-teen, pre-screen stint as an exotic dancer. More low-calorie fun than any Steven Soderbergh movie since “Ocean’s Eleven,” this breezy offering ought to be subtitled “How Steven Got His Groove Back,” as its typically high-minded director drops pretentions like tear-away pants. Meanwhile, enlisting a squad of Hollywood hunks to strip down to their thongs alongside him, Tatum (backed by producing partner Reid Carolin) drains the shame from a profession that gets no respect, serving up a guiltless girls’ night out likely to rank among the summer’s word-of-mouth sensations.
Nobody works harder than Mike, a sort-of “what if” version of Tatum had he stayed in Tampa, Fla., and stuck to stripping. A self-described entrepreneur, Mike juggles three jobs — dancing, roofing and auto-detailing — but dreams of starting a fourth business designing custom furniture. A few years ago, he would’ve had no trouble getting a loan from the bank; these days, credit is so tight, the situation has practically forced him into stripping — or so the film slyly implies with a terrific, typically Soderberghian scene in which Mike tries to use his use his ladykiller charms, plus a stack of $14,000 in unwadded tips, to convince a female loan officer to back his furniture proposal.
Naturally, such real-world details are the first thing to come off once Carolin’s script heats up. Frankly, “Magic Mike” is no different from the gentleman who walks into the room dressed as a firefighter or cop and then delights the crowd by taking it all off. Tatum, Soderbergh and team appreciate the real reason audiences showed up, and the film provides just enough character and plot to validate the plentiful pecs and abundant buns that serve as its main attraction.
While Mike is planning the next stage of his career, he meets a clueless 19-year-old college dropout, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), at the job site. The two guys bond a little, which gives Mike the confidence he needs to drag the kid — whose stage name will soon become “the Kid” — into the world of the Xquisite all-male dance revue, an elaborately choreographed G-string extravaganza overseen by self-made golden boy Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) and featuring a lineup that includes Matt Bomer (“White Collar”), Adam Rodriguez (“CSI: Miami”), Joe Manganiello (“True Blood”) and WWE star Kevin Nash (who lumbers through routines the others enthusiastically ace).
Like Christina Aguilera in “Burlesque” or Ryan Phillippe in “54,” Pettyfer plays the film’s wide-eyed audience surrogate, and even though ticketbuyers know what he’s getting himself into, there’s a thrill in discovering this world through such a giddily naive perspective. Not since “Step Up” has Tatum had such a perfect showcase for his crazy dance moves, but it’s no less entertaining watching Pettyfer play awkward as Adam is thrust onstage, stumbling through his “virgin” performance.
Everything about Soderbergh’s approach, from the energy to the music (a mix of hot-today dance songs and such beefcake standards as “It’s Raining Men”) to the nonjudgmental tone, seems to be onboard with stripping — everything except Adam’s overprotective older sister, Brooke (Cody Horn, fully committing to the character’s single disapproving-frown expression). Of all the dark, complicated paths the story might have gone down, “Magic Mike” contents itself as a relatively superficial different-classes love story, in which Mike must prove himself responsible enough in Brooke’s eyes to overcome the pimplike way he recruited her brother, ultimately giving Tatum a chance to bellow, “I’m not my lifestyle!” like some kind of dime-store Stanley Kowalski.
That’s not to say Tatum isn’t actor enough to handle the assignment. In addition to the role’s physical demands, he has the added challenge of making it look effortless, and Tatum’s gift comes in playing things casual, inhabiting the character without having to spell out an elaborate backstory. Of the other strippers, McConaughey steals the spotlight, adding yet another strong characterization to a respect-building streak that began with “The Lincoln Lawyer” last year. Meanwhile, a certain dopeyness serves Adam well, and Pettyfer proves an excellent case of a director using his star’s limited acting abilities to the film’s advantage.
Soderbergh is in excellent form here, putting aside the ambitious experimentation that threw a wet blanket on such ostensibly sexy projects as “Full Frontal” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” while re-embracing the professional lighting and shooting techniques missing from “Contagion” and “Haywire.” (Once again, he serves as his own d.p., under the pseudonym Peter Andrews.) Tatum reportedly first approached Nicolas Winding Refn about making “Magic Mike,” but here he has the benefit of not only Soderbergh’s commercial savvy, but also the good-humored generosity and keen anthropological interest the helmer brings to every project. No moment captures that sensibility better than an oblique glimpse of backstage “fluffing” sure to rank among the year’s most amusing shots.