Magic Mike is meant to be Channing Tatum’s film. The young star co-produced the movie, which is loosely based on his own experiences making ends meet by moonlighting as a stripper. But it’s the film’s more seasoned, appropriately fading beefcake, the 42-year-old Matthew McConaughey (playing Dallas, owner of adult-entertainment hotspot Xquisite), who steals what show there is. Early on, while training Xquisite prospect Adam (Alex Pettyfer), Dallas lays out the whole strip-club long con. As sculpted as their hard bodies are, Xquisite’s dancers function first as the raw material of fantasy, fit to be slotted into one or another of the club’s cheaply staged setups (naval officer, Tarzan, urban b-boy, etc.) to satisfy their shrieking patrons. Magic Mike’s maneuvers are similar. It’s a film about male strippers that couches fantasy in fantasy, then wraps it in celebrity—a chance to see Tatum bare (almost) all. For what’s ostensibly a small, indie-ish Steven Soderbergh film in the small, indie-ish Steven Soderbergh film mode, Magic Mike’s commercial prospects are built on the back—and six-pack abs—of its star.
To an extent, Tatum’s mere presence lends the material credibility. It’s a trick Soderbergh has attempted a lot recently, first by casting high-minded adult-film star Sacha Grey (whose early porn name was, ugh, “Anna Karina”) as a high-class escort in 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience, and more recently (and effectively) by placing MMA star Gina Carano front and center in last year’s electrifying punch-’em-up Haywire. Tatum plays the titular construction worker/car detailer/stripper, squirrelling away crumpled dollar bills in hopes of starting his own custom-furniture company. While tiling the roof of a Tampa house, he takes the ne’er-do-well Adam under his wing, nicknames him “The Kid,” and introduces him to Dallas and the other Xquisite slabs. Mike promises Adam’s disapproving sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), that he’ll keep an eye on her kid brother, and more or less makes good on the promise until the film sees fit to free itself from its dramatic torpor.
Like much of Soderbergh’s output, especially recently, Magic Mike feels undercooked. It’s fully satisfying neither as an indulgent, half-campy movie about male strippers (the director, operating the camera under a guild-approved alias, shoots the film’s many stripteases with a level of flashy competence that’s not very exciting) nor as a movie about male strippers—the mental taxes of playing fantasy object for a rotating clientele of bachelorette parties. It shuffles its concerns around freely, dropping plot threads about Mike’s entrepreneurial ambitions, his budding romance with the Kid’s sister, and Adam’s own dizzying descent into club-drug debauchery (ecstasy hasn’t been so ruthlessly vilified since Bad Boys II), and picking them up again willy-nilly. It even peppers in a scene of Mike denied a small-business loan, a crack at of-the-moment relevancy that feels too much like a self-conscious time-capsuling, like all the chatter about Obama/McCain and “these economic times” in The Girlfriend Experience.
It’s as if Soderbergh expects the film to mostly resolve itself, rounded out by the asses-in-the-seats appeal of the material, rote thematic underpinning, and ample charms of the cast. (Certainly, Tatum is amiable enough. And McConuaghey, his dapper dirtbag Southern gent slipping believably into fits of self-delusion and drawling menace, stokes the fires of his recent career renaissance, set to peak with the release of William Friedkin’s Killer Joe.) Still, the director’s spottiness may be his great strength, the calling card of his non-brand. With his functional stylistic and tonal consistency, vacillations between star-studded mainstream fare and those small, indie-ish films, and sheer prolificacy, Soderbegh oddly splits the difference between half-ass and auteur. Even when they feel like they’re on autopilot, many of his films are entertaining enough, well made enough, and plain good enough. And if there’s truth in Dallas’s wisdom that “You’re only worth the money you pry out of their fuckin’ purses,” Soderbergh may well have a hit on his hands.