In his risk-taking films, Steven Soderbergh has taken viewers into many twilight worlds such as that of black op soldiers (“Haywire”), high end call girls (“The Girlfriend Experience”), revolutionaries (“Che”), class action lawsuits (“Erin Brockovich”) and the wars on drugs (“Traffic”) and deadly diseases (“Contagion”). But while watching “Magic Mike,” which plunges into the false glamour of male strippers, you search in vain for a reason why you’re there.
The story itself, when it finally teases itself out, is a rather conventional one. The characters never resonate, the dialogue is strangely halting and inadequate and the attitude toward the subject itself grows increasingly ambivalent. The world of male strippers may sound like a good idea — it’s funny, sexy, wacky and the beefcake should appear to women, right? But once you land there and all those funny, sexy, wacky things happen in the first few minutes, where do you go from there?
Whatever options were debated by Soderbergh, writer Reid Carolin and the film’s star and co-producer Channing Tatum, whose experiences as a male stripper in his late teens inspired the movie, they made the curious choice of going deep into melodrama with a flickering romance in the background. It’s a questionable choice.
Lord knows female strippers turn up in movies with such regularity that a wag once remarked — who was it, anybody remember? — that no movie detective can ever solve a crime without at least one visit to a strip club. But male strippers — and let’s be accurate here: men who strip for heterosexual women in night clubs that simulate the action at regular strip clubs — is virtually terra incognita for a movie.
So all that exaggerated masculinity in cowboy or police outfits and the strutting, hip-rotating, pelvis-thrusting moves are hilarious. The dressing-room swagger and b.s.-ing of these men backstage, caught by Soderbergh (under his DP alias of Peter Andrews) once more with the red digital camera, only adds to the humor.
And the willingness of the female clientele to extend their favors to after hours certainly cranks up the sexiness. What’s to dislike about this job if you’re a young guy — you get paid and laid! (text continues)
Soderbergh, Carolin and Tatum do search for things to dislike, however, otherwise where’s the conflict? The story imagines Tatum’s 30-ish Magic Mike, his on-stage moniker, taking a 19-year-old (Alex Pettyfer), whom he dubs the Kid, under his wings to teach him the ropes of stripping. The kid has a hot sister Brooke (Cody Horn) Mike wants to know better despite his continuing attraction to a psychology student (Olivia Munn) who is his occasional hook-up and Brooke’s wariness of Mike’s lifestyle.
Her brother’s experiences serve to underscore her need for caution. The Kid heads immediately for the unsavory part of the business, getting drunk, partying with the wrong women and involving himself in drug dealing.
Meanwhile, Mike has any number of other gigs from roofing to car detailing in his determination to raise money to open his own custom furniture store. His sleazy boss, an ex-stripper who now owns the club, has grand designs too. Dallas (Matthew McConaughey in a fine bit of self-parody) wants to take the act from the relative sticks of Tampa, Florida, to big-time Miami. But he’ll need his headliner, Magic Mike — or will he? Maybe the Kid is the next new thing.
The deeper you get into this tawdry tale though, the less involved you feel. The indifferent chemistry between Channing and Horn isn’t much of a hook either. The film keeps struggling to find something pertinent to say about the world of male strippers, but mostly dishes up unsavory folks and peripheral tough guys once the characters get involved in the drug trade.
Channing does give himself one of his better roles here as he easily suggests a genuine good guy underneath the sweat and swagger. Pettyfer too makes an impression as the directionless lad whose only talent is for screw-ups — and coaxing dollar bills from women with his little-boy-lost charisma.
Certainly the dances are pretty cool. Choreographer Alison Faulk puts the all-male review through athletic solo and group routines that combine muscular bravado with Olympic-style gymnastics. (“It’s Raining Men” proves a good song for one of these numbers!) The dances possess what the film lacks — a wry sense of wit and a lot of heart.
Sure the recruited extras who play the all-female audience, nearly all hotties to boot, scream and laugh on cue. But you suspect these dances would inspire a similar reaction with a real audience. This is easily the most successful part of “Magic Mike,” one that has actual magic.
The locations, mostly in Tampa but some in Southern California, and Howard Cummings’ eye for telling details in the production design nicely fit the laid-back decadence on display.
Opens: June 29 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: A Nick Wechsler/Gregory Jacobs production of a Iron Horse/Extension 765 Enterprise
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
Producers: Nick Wechsler, Gregory Jacobs, Channing Tatum, Reid Carolin
Director of photography: Peter Andrews
Production designer: Howard Cummings
Costume designer: Christopher Peterson
Choreographer: Alison Faulk
Editor: Mary Ann Bernard
R rating, 111 minutes