Far more prolific than before he announced he was giving up moviemaking, Steven Soderbergh has set Magic Mike, his latest parable of how capitalism transforms sex into a soulless commodity, in the world of male strippers. It’s surprisingly enjoyable. The morality play is obvious but not crushingly so, while the strip scenes are free of the usual Sex, Lies, and Videotape mixture of attraction and repulsion. Soderbergh is his own cinematographer (under the name “Peter Andrews”), and maybe because he’s a heterosexual he can shoot these male bodies without fearing his own (supposedly) unhealthy voyeuristic gaze. He lets you bask in the glow of the mens’ musculature; their tanned, toned torsos; the pleasure they take from selling their bodies by choice instead of (as with so many women) economic necessity. He can see them through the eyes of the women in the audience who scream themselves hoarse as they reach for the dancers’ crotches. For once in a Soderbergh film, the artist overpowers the pointy-headed social scientist.
As the title character, a dancer especially beloved by the ladies, Channing Tatum finally holds the camera like a movie star instead of another generic hunk. He once worked as an exotic dancer and still has the moves — along with the faint embarrassment that comes from having outgrown this brand of exhibitionism. Mike also works as an aide to the beady-eyed Tampa strip club owner (and ex-dancer), Dallas (Matthew McConaughey): He wants to make enough to open a business designing furniture, to be a full-time artist instead of a part-time whore.
The script by Reid Carolin soft-peddles the clichés but doesn’t miss a trick. There’s a male ingenue, the down-and-out slacker Adam (Alex Pettyfer), whom Mike brings him into the stripper fold — i.e., leads astray. There’s the light-haired good girl, Adam’s sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), who fears for her brother and watches Mike with quiet disapproval, and the dark bad girl (Olivia Munn), a chill grad student clearly using him for his hot bod. Will Mike redeem himself and win the love of Brooke, or open a bigger club in Miami with Dallas and be damned?
It’s tempting to think that the melodrama would be more convincing with a Brooke who wasn’t so dead-voiced and robotic (Horn is the daughter of the Warner Bros. president and COO, of which you can make what you will), but I don’t think even Jessica Chastain could sell this silliness. No, it’s better to think of Magic Mike as arty but energetic soft-core porn, with no pickle shots but plenty of juice. You should see it if only for McConaughey, an underrated leading man who finally gets a chance to use his strange timing — not rat-tat-tat but a teasing, self-infatuated drawl — for maximum creepiness. Watch him take the stage on the club’s last night in Tampa, savoring the audience’s desire, conducting their screams like a virtuoso, the whore as master of the universe.
This story appeared in the July 21, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.