Being that it’s a creation of Steven Soderbergh (Contagion, Haywire), it should be no surprise that (like its titular character) Magic Mike is more than the superficial flesh-fest it may initially seem to be. Aside from being a witty reversal of the usual cinematic gender roles (men, instead of girls, being showcased as sexual objects), the film is also a refreshingly original (and often hilarious) workplace ensemble comedy; a subtle social commentary on blue-collar struggle and the pitfalls of the American Dream; a nuanced character study anchored by breakout leading man Channing Tatum (The Vow); and even at its weakest, a cute (if not cliched) slow-burn love story.
Mike is a hard-working (and hard-playing) Tampa, Florida boy with ambitions that extend beyond the borders of his blue-collar reality. He wants to start a business making custom furniture (his quirky personal obsession), but credit woes keep him stranded in the limbo of odd-job work, with nights spent heating up the ladies of Tampa as a legendary male dancer/stripper. Mike’s focus on his hustle gets sidetracked when he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a fresh-faced boy practically begging for a wing to rest under. Mike wastes no time turning Adam out (that’s pimp slang, Google it) and introduces him, sink-or-swim style, to the world of male stripping – a world hosted by charismatic den father/business manager, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey).
The plot thickens when Adam’s sister, Brooke (relative newcomer Cody Horn), learns about her brother’s new profession. Cody isn’t the “vampire” type (i.e., those who live the wild nightlife) and she challenges Mike’s smooth-as-butter swagger, while also holding him to the promise that he’ll do right by her brother. Of course, like any young man with looks, money, and the adoration of women, Adam quickly begins to tumble down the slippery slope of drugs and bad decisions – landing both him and Mike in some troubled waters. Questioning his future and his relationships with both Dallas and Brooke, Mike soon finds himself facing some hard realities, and harder choices.
As stated, Magic Mike offers much more than its initial kinky (and overly familiar) premise. Sorry fellas, there is still a lot of sculpted male anatomy being put on display – and trust me when I tell you, you’ll be getting an eyeful of everything. However, Soderbergh directs with his usual interminably hip sense of style, and does a great job of developing the entire stripping aspect of the film in a way that mirrors the actual experience: an enticing fantasy that, when examined in more depth, slowly reveals a somewhat strange, sad, and ultimately unfavorable reality.
The enticing dance sequences are perfectly executed and deliciously juxtaposed to the off-beat backstage scenes where the pretty boys instantly get juvenile and silly, soliciting many laughs as we watch these grown men engage in odd (quasi-feminine) behavior as manscaping, costuming, or (ahem) a bit of… anatomical enhancement. Workplace comedies are great – provided you have the right ensemble of personalities; Tatum, McConaughey, and the other members of the stripping team – True Blood star Joe Manganiello, former WWE star, Diesel (Kevin Nash), CSI: Miami star Adam Rodriguez and White Collar star Matt Bomer – have the chemistry and the snappy repertoire to keep things light and fun up in the club. Manganiello – who plays the aptly named “Big Dick Richie” – continues to be a stand out, even when handed thin supporting material; McConaughey pretty much owns every scene he’s in, and arguably plays his best character since he dropped those classic lines as an overaged high school clinger in Dazed and Confused.
Tatum continues to dare his detractors to hate him, as he once again turns in a great leading performance as Mike. The actor (who is treading on some semi-autobiographical material here) layers his performance perfectly, so that he is at once the fantasy guy that women desire and men aspire to be; the ‘hooker with a heart of gold and big dreams’ that we’ve seen in so many movies before (Pretty Woman); but secretly (and revealed with careful measure) a troubled, lonely soul frustrated by the trappings of his blue-collar life and the inevitable emptiness that comes from being overshadowed by his”Magic Mike” persona. Tatum nails every scene that requires him to do real emoting or show serious vulnerability; otherwise, he’s a smooth-talking, slick-dancing, piece of leading man eye candy that certain viewers will eat right up.
Cody Horn will likely enjoy breakout success thanks to this role, as she manages to hold the screen both on her own and when facing off against Tatum. Mike and Brooke’s chemistry is charming and interesting to watch, even if seeming, at times, like an extraneous addition to the plot. Cody plays Brooke as a sardonic observer of the mad world around her – the one person in this crowd of misfits who recognizes the absurdity of what’s going on, and can see well beyond the pretty fantasy to the soul-eroding eventuality of the business. Horn’s immaculately structured face conveys volumes of expression in just a furrowed glance, or twisted lip, and Soderbergh lets the camera linger on her at every opportunity, creating an entire subtext about those women for whom this particular reversal (men exploited as sexual objects) holds little allure.
Supporting actors like Alex Pettyfer and Olivia Munn are handed the hard jobs of conveying some of the secondary sub-plots of the film in a way that is effective, but not overly distracting to the main narrative threads. Pettyfer (who has headlined films like I Am Number Four and In Time) has arguably had his talent overlooked; his character (re-christened as “The Kid”) is not that interesting when compared to Mike, but Pettyfer handles Adam’s descent into corruption and stagnation in such a nuanced (but resonant) way that it deserves acknowledgement. Munn plays Joanna, a hedonistic intellectual whose casual relationship with Mike takes some interesting turns when Mr. Magic tries to grasp something real in his life. While Munn isn’t the greatest actress, her character serves her well and this is probably her most memorable onscreen performance to date.
Soderbergh’s directorial style and editing is (as usual) a highlight of the proceedings, and transforms the admittedly cliched story beats of Magic Mike into something fresh and unique. The film is structured by chapters that each cover one month of summer (June, July, August) – and even the jump-cuts from chapter to chapter are executed in pitch-perfect fashion. The photography is structured equally well, and often holds on certain shots or perspectives that are contrary to the voyeuristic impulses of the audience (for example, an extended shot of Brooke’s face as she watches one of Mike’s stage routines, rather than quick cuts back to the performance itself). There are also plenty of visual gags laced into the photography and mis-en-scene composition (see: that “anatomical enhancement” scene), while the gorgeous cinematography alternates between the vividly dark and the mutedly light.
All in all, Magic Mike takes a familiar story and transforms it into something modern, unique and beautiful to look at (and I’m not just talking beefcakes, here). The great performances outweigh the cliched (and at times, meandering) story beats of first-time feature-film screenwriter Reid Carolin’s script, and there is enough humor, romantic intrigue – and yes, plenty of tight bodies - to send any and everyone home with fun (of some kind) having been had.
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out our Magic Mike episode of the SR Underground podcast.
Magic Mike is now playing in theaters. It is Rated R for pervasive sexual content, brief graphic nudity, language and some drug use.