Carnal film offers more than thongs

Alex Williams

Magic Mike” is director Steven Soderbergh’s third film in nine months, and it’s remarkable that he hasn’t burned himself out yet. After “Contagion,” a sprawling ensemble piece that released in September, Soderbergh has been building his films around singular personalities, first with MMA fighter Gina Carano in January’s underrated “Haywire,” and now with Channing Tatum in “Magic Mike.” And most surprising of all, “Magic Mike” is a worthy addition to Soderbergh’s filmography, a surprisingly touching and smart examination of a very seedy profession.

Based on Channing Tatum’s past as a male stripper, Tatum plays Mike, an aging stripper at a Tampa, Fla. nightclub with greater aspirations. Mike has a knack for furniture design, but is trying to earn money any way possible, and it’s at a daytime construction job that he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer). Before too long, Adam and Mike are hanging out, and then Mike gets Adam a job at the club where he works, owned by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey).

What follows is a fairly standard story of an aging star being pushed out of the spotlight by his up-and-coming protege, but it’s Soderbergh’s precise stylistic control that keeps the film from becoming dull. He shoots the strip club scenes with a seductive glamour and sheen, but when Mike and his co-workers venture out into the real world, things take on a washed-out, almost hungover visual grit. Also impressive is the fearlessness with which Soderbergh dives into the male stripper culture, and the depth of the small observations he makes about the sense of community that exists among its inhabitants.

It can be assumed that Soderbegh took an interest in Tatum after his physical, roguish turn in “Haywire,” the first of many impressive performances he’s given this year. However, “Magic Mike” may be his best performance, and he’s an arresting presence in the film. He’s a showman, full of bravado and confidence on and offstage, and it’s a self-aware, deeply charming performance in a film full of them. Mike ends up romantically entangled with Brooke (Cody Horn), Adam’s protective older sister — Horn’s restrained, coy demeanor makes for good chemistry with Tatum’s energetic goofiness.

I wasn’t really aware of what the audience for “Magic Mike” was until I attended a press screening full of middle-aged women hooting and hollering every time a bare chest or thong came onscreen, but that crowd will certainly find what they’re looking for. However, the film carries unexpected dramatic weight beneath its seductive exterior, and the way Soderbergh juggles sheer entertainment and more complex character development is the most impressive trick “Magic Mike” could have hoped for.