'Magic Mike' Bares a Soul
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Summer steamrollers like "The Avengers" sometimes feel like cinematic beat-downs. Good or bad, the mechanics of these big brawls can be numbingly repetitious. Their vulnerable manflesh stuffed into kid costumes and muscle suits, superheroes battle one another bloodlessly, bumping and grinding in the service of saving the eternally imperiled world. Borrrrr-ing! For an antidote and a really good time, go see "Magic Mike," Steven Soderbergh's funny, exhilarating, down-and-dirty celebration of a different breed of costumed superstud -- and a much earthier brand of bumping and grinding.
Soderbergh's footloose movie about Tampa hunks who strip for a living is no "Nashville," but this director shares Robert Altman's eagle eye for the idiosyncrasies of folks who populate a show-biz subculture, as well as his ability to riff on rhythms of half-heard, possibly improvised conversation among guys who share a trade, however infra dig. Drawn from Channing Tatum's own stint as a stripper back in the day, the script -- by first-timer Reid Carolin, the actor's producing partner -- doesn't aim for big narrative fireworks. The story flows the way life does when you mostly live at night: working up a head of steam onstage, stoned, sleeping around with strangers, your days slipping by in a hangover haze.
The movie's mornings-after and afternoon delights are drenched in bruised, golden-dirty Florida sunshine. That exquisitely decaying light can wear its denizens down, but it's also energizing, a real turn-on. "Magic Mike" catches that alternating beat in hot bursts of physicality and dreamy, drug-fueled languors. A slow-simmering love affair between Tatum and quirky charmer Jody Horn warms up during walks in the sun. As disengaged as a pleasant, vagrant breeze, Soderbergh's camera drifts around their conversations: casual, intermittent, sometimes inaudible, punctuated by laughter. Nothing's nailed down in Tampa's fluid light; Soderbergh's taking moving pictures of the flux and flow of human experience. (The director shot and edited, under his usual aliases.)
A lot of that flux and flow -- along with performances of astounding flexibility -- occurs in the Xquisite strip club owned by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), a peacockin' cowboy in black leather. Spoofing his own studly rep while milking it for every last drop of sexual charisma, McConaughey owns the screen. Flamboyantly venal, Dallas wraps his big-cat purr around anything that moves. After finally(!) shedding all his cowboy gear toward the end of the movie, his sweaty, lubricious glee -- "Dallas be ridin' again!" -- is flat-out irresistible.
Club headliner is Tatum's Magic Mike, a supple jack-of-all-trades onstage and off. It's during one of his several day jobs that Mike "adopts" Alex Pettyfer's feckless Adam, who stumbles out onstage a klutzy virgin in black socks and baggy underpants, but comes off a big hit. As a hollow man instantly -- and fatally -- addicted to the adrenalin rush of women and money, Pettyfer's perfect. Xquisite's beefcake roster also includes Matthew Bomer ("White Collar"), Adam Rodriguez ("CSI: Miami"), WWE vet Kevin Nash and, most notably, "True Blood"'s Joe Manganiello as Big Dick Richie.
More benign than "Boogie Nights," "Magic Mike" never lays a bad rap on the stripper lifestyle. Instead, the movie mines the funny out of what could be dissed as sad and sleazy. Gotta love it when, following newbie Adam's backstage hazing, the grizzled old man of the clan rumbles wisely, "It's an initiation ... like 'Lord of the Flies.'" And it's a hoot to watch Sookie's favorite werewolf mend his best thong on a sewing machine, or the onetime "Lincoln Lawyer" lead in short shorts and midriff-baring T-shirt, showing Adam how to shed clothes con brio.
But it's Tatum's show. I've dissed "Step Up"'s hoofer and Nicolas Sparks' go-to sad sack ("Dear John," "The Vow") as an affectless hunk bereft of smarts or cool. But color me wrong. Playing Magic Mike, a good-looking, half-bright guy who aspires to something more than aging into a "40-year-old stripper," Tatum looks like a natural-born star. Not only can he deftly segue from comedy into drama, the boy's hot as hell as a stripper, strutting his stuff in trench coat, sweatsuit, marine camo, and especially draped in black shreds, a steampunk mutant channeling Fosse and hip-hop. (Choreography's by Alison Faulk, and the high-energy dance routines are terrific, cheesy but cherce.)
The big brawls I referenced earlier feature flesh-and-blood men gracelessly cocooned in superhero gear. In contrast, "Magic Mike"'s physicality, the power of real bodies in fierce motion, generates not only sexual heat but lizard-brain exhilaration. Flesh that moves ecstatically defies the stasis of death. The strippers on Dallas' stage are "c----rocking kings" because their moves (and Soderbergh's only apparently loosey-goosey movie) celebrate being alive in our human skins. Even stripping down on ladies' night taps into the power of kinesis to sex up any empty space, whether theater or gymnasium, with beauty and form and significance. Soderbergh gets that, and truth be told, so does the star of "Magic Mike."