NEW YORK – In Magic Mike, Channing Tatum’s pre-Hollywood experience as a male stripper has inspired not only one of his better roles but also arguably the raunchiest, funniest and most enjoyably nonjudgmental American movie about selling sex since Boogie Nights, its obvious if considerably darker precursor. Delivering what feels like a young director’s work and not that of a guy nudging 50, Steven Soderbergh taps into the jazzy erotic energy that put him on the map more than 20 years ago with Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
Following its closing-night premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Warner release should rake in girl and gay dollars on the strength of its ample man candy alone. The script by first-time screenwriter Reid Carolin (Tatum’s producing partner) is stronger on dialogue and character than on narrative originality or emotional conflict. But as Soderbergh showed in his Ocean’s Eleven series, the director has a terrific feel for depicting male camaraderie, and the buddy elements should give Magic Mike inclusive appeal.
It might also be the first mainstream movie to feature a casual demonstration of a pump-operated penis enlarger (keep an eye on the left-hand margins of the widescreen frame), which should at least provide a talking point at the multiplex.
A self-described entrepreneur whose small businesses include roof tiling, car detailing and designing custom furniture from found objects, Mike (Tatum) makes his serious cash as one of the "cock-rocking kings of Tampa" in a male dance revue at ladies’ nightspot Xquisite. The fringe benefits are apparent as Mike is slyly introduced, naked and still groggy following a three-way with occasional hookup Joanna (Olivia Munn) and a girl whose name neither of them can remember.
Mike’s stripper guru is club owner Dallas, a gonzo showman in leather vest and tear-away pants, played by a hilariously self-parodying Matthew McConaughey. Sporting more six packs than a beer blast, Dallas’ crew includes pretty boy Ken (Matt Bomer), whose "Living Doll" routine takes its cue from his name; Tarzan (Kevin Nash), a gnarled wild man in the Mickey Rourke mold; Latin stud Tito (Adam Rodriguez); and Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), whose special talent requires no explanation, though he does get a little help from the aforementioned pump.
The undisputed star attraction, however, and big brother to the troupe is Magic Mike, a role that allows Tatum to show off the slick dance moves he’s kept hidden since Step Up.
Choreographed by Alison Faulk, the solo routines and the group numbers are a blast, embracing every cheesy male stripper stereotype from soldiers, sailors and cops to cowboys and firemen. These guys are like a heterosexual rethink of The Village People. Their routines include a fabulously hoary "It's Raining Men" number with trench coats and umbrellas and a boot-camp routine with McConaughey cranking up the crazy intensity as Uncle Sam.
Soderbergh clearly gets a kick out of flipping the gender roles of sexual objectification. The club scenes cater to male fantasies of mass female adoration, while the hordes of delirious, drunken women stuffing singles into jockstraps represent a liberating switch from the usual depictions of sleazy men leering at pole dancers.
The primary focus of Carolin’s story is the friendship between Mike and Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a directionless 19-year-old college football-scholarship dropout Mike meets on a roofing crew. Mike takes Adam under his wing, shoving him onstage without warning to do his first strip, appropriately to "Like a Virgin." Nervous but game, Adam is dubbed The Kid and proves a natural at pleasing the ladies.
Some of the funniest scenes include The Kid getting schooled in crotch-grinding moves by Dallas, glistening in a crop top and short shorts; and Adam’s awkward nonexplanation when his sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), discovers a box full of thongs and sex-fantasy costumes and finds him using her razor to shave his legs. The sibling rapport is sketched with warmth and humor, as is the slow-burning attraction between Mike and Brooke. This is complicated by her protectiveness toward her loose-cannon younger brother and her skepticism about Mike’s line of work.
Tatum deftly shows that beneath all the hard partying and easy sex, there’s a longing for a real relationship in Mike as well as a hunger to explore his creativity by focusing on his furniture designs. There’s also an encroaching fear of ending up a self-deifying nut job like Dallas, who plans to upgrade the act with a move to big-time Miami.
Inevitably, the movie takes a sobering turn. Adam’s lack of maturity impairs his judgment, prompting him to overindulge in druggy sex (notably with Riley Keough as a stoned Kewpie doll with a pet piglet) and split an Ecstasy deal with the club DJ (Gabriel Iglesias). The entree of Adam’s character into stripping was inspired by Tatum’s experience at 18, though the out-of-control spiral reportedly is fictional.
While this plotline echoes countless perils-of-success movies and easily could have become a male Showgirls, Soderbergh shrewdly avoids letting it turn lurid or campy by underplaying the melodrama. Instead, he observes droll but humanizing details, like a quick shot of Mike patiently ironing out crumpled dollar bills retrieved from his underwear. The humor is refreshingly low-key and unforced, such as having True Blood hunk Manganiello, who’s built like Iron Man, be the delicate one of the troupe, fretting over herpes or throwing his back out while giving a zaftig customer an airborne thrill.
Some of the movie’s best moments are those in which Soderbergh's nimble camera -- he shot the film under his usual cinematographer alias of Peter Andrews and edited as Mary Ann Bernard -- looks on while the guys chill backstage at Xquisite, pumping biceps, mending thongs or doing shots to get into performance mode. This dialogue often has a semi-improvised feel, with Soderbergh eavesdropping on snatches of conversation in a style reminiscent of Robert Altman.
There’s a looseness and buoyancy to the filmmaking and to the naturalistic performances that keeps the story real, and while many of the key castmembers have relatively little to do, even the smallest roles add texture. Tatum’s balance of breezy confidence and nagging restlessness is just right, while Pettyfer scores as the cocky new recruit dazzled by his sudden demi-celebrity. And as the movie’s grounded voice of caution, Horn is enormously appealing. Betsy Brandt from Breaking Bad pops up in a nice bit as a bank officer processing Mike’s loan application.
Shot on Red Digital Camera, the well-paced film goes for desaturated exteriors, as if life outside the club unfolds in a sun-blasted permanent-hangover state. Music supervisor Frankie Pine’s playlist keeps the action humming and provides propulsive enhancement to this cheeky peek at a seductive world distilled by Mike to its essence of "women, money and a good time."
Opens: June 29 (Warner Bros.)
Cast: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn, Matt Bomer, Riley Keough, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter: Reid Carolin
Production companies: Iron Horse, Extension 765
Producers: Nick Wechsler, Gregory Jacobs, Channing Tatum, Reid Carolin
Director of photography: Peter Andrews
Production designer: Howard Cummings
Costume designer: Christopher Peterson
Editor: Mary Ann Bernard
Choreographer: Alison Faulk
Rated R, 110 minutes