A masterful craftsman even when directing fluff, Steven Soderbergh remains one of the more fascinating American filmmakers working today, continually demonstrating an ability to handle wide-ranging projects without blatantly phoning it in. His last two years of releases have included a documentary on monologuist Spalding Gray ("And Everything Is Going Fine"), an apocalyptic ensemble drama ("Contagion") and a martial arts extravaganza ("Haywire"). His latest, "Magic Mike," has much in common with previous Soderbergh efforts in that it glides along at a terrifically entertaining pace. The opposite of camp, "Magic Mike" is conventionally jolly despite appearances to the contrary. Only Soderbergh could turn a movie about male strippers into a universal crowdpleaser.
"Magic Mike" has received plenty of pre-release hype for drawing its story from lead man Channing Tatum's early career experiences as a stripper before his acting career took off, but its basic ingredients are simple enough that it could have been conceived from scratch. Nineteen-year-old shyster Adam (Alex Pettyfer) struggles to figure out his professional calling while living out a drab existence with his sister Brooke (Cody Horn), a serious-minded nurse's aide, in sunny Tampa. Roaming the streets one night, he encounters Mike (Tatum), whom he briefly met during a deadened construction gig. That's when things get funky.
Ever the entrepreneur, Mike immediately notices Adam's aptitude for drawing the opposite sex, and quickly enlists the younger man at the boisterous Club Xquisite, a hugely profitable all-male revue run by the Wonka-esque Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Anchored by a series of hilariously over-the-top choreography replete with lavish stage design and a lot of undulating torsos, "Magic Mike" nimbly settles into its snazzy coming-of-age story with an emphasis on breezy satisfaction: While ostensibly focused on the hustling Mike's gradual recognition of a higher calling beyond the stage, Soderbergh still relishes the candy-colored stage antics and the giddy rush that viewers of any sexual disposition can get from it. The movie eagerly has it both ways.
With title cards indicating monthly shifts as the story unfolds over the course of a lively summer, "Magic Mike" follows Adam's downward spiral into the seedy party life that Mike slowly realizes he has outgrown. Soderbergh's roaming camera has fun with the details (a backstage instance of penis inflation marks his cleverest use of mise-en-scene in some time, as it simultaneously catches Adam's gaping eyes in the background). But Soderbergh also sits still for pensive moments that routinely assert the serious narrative sustaining the good vibes, particularly once Mike takes a romantic interest in Adam's conservative-minded sister and must confront her measured disdain for his profession.
As the only fully sane person in the movie, Horn handles her role well enough, but Tatum owns "Magic Mike" more than its director, displaying heretofore unseen levels of charisma and attitude that provide the realistic counterpoint to McConaughey's cartoony showmanship. (If the movie only focused on him, it would fly off the rails.) An aspiring designer with business smarts to spare, Mike is the movie's soul, both onstage and off.
Like nearly every Soderbergh movie since "The Girlfriend Experience," the script contains innumerable zeitgeist references, mainly tagged to the struggling economy. Dialogue frequently centers on the imperative behind the gig: The strippers' job calls for "25% dancing and 25% marketing," in the words of one practitioner (the other 50% is left undefined, but after all, it's a part-time gig). Several conversations revolve around get-rich-quick schemes of various other forms (a throwaway line name-drops Robert Koyosaki's "Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money"). As a fancier upgrade for the club members in Miami looms, "Magic Mike" heads toward an inevitable confrontation and climax. By the time Mike pleads "I'm not my lifestyle," his exoneration has been evident for an hour.
Most audiences, expecting something closer to a masculine "Showgirls," might be surprised by the relatively serious tone: "Magic Mike" crams together several derivative subplots that dangle (sorry) around energetic striptease sequences enacted with the ostentatiousness of an MGM musical. It's such a slick, er, package that one can easily overlook the lack of originality as things veer toward a series of clichéd resolutions.
Mike's flailing bids to win over Brooke's heart work better than a half-baked drug-dealing subplot, and the stage antics always steamroll the allure of everything else. However, a lot of its shortcomings are only apparent in retrospect. Soderbergh hugs a familiar arc that makes its path visible long before it arrives at various twists, but even when revealing its secrets, "Magic Mike" casts a seriously entertaining spell.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Warner Bros. releases "Magic Mike" this Friday in the wake of mostly positive early reviews. It will likely perform decently as mainstream counterprogramming to the bigger popcorn fare and emerge as one of the summer's sleeper hits.