REVIEW: "Magic Mike" is an essay about the economy, with well-oiled torsos.
Channing Tatum's juicy male stripper romp, "Magic Mike," boasts more six-packs than a tailgate party, sensationally enjoyable choreography and a dash of romance. It's a lighthearted girls' night out movie and a funhouse mirror turned on American sexual attitudes and economic anxieties. Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar-winning director of "Traffic" and "Sex, Lies and Videotape," gives the audience its money's worth -- a front-row view of some architecturally outstanding male bodies --while slipping in subversive ideas almost subliminally.
The film is a semi-autobiographical sketch of the period when Abercrombie & Fitch model-turned-actor Tatum performed in a ladies' exotic dance club. He carries the film with an aw-shucks clowning flair that works beautifully on camera. Tatum plays Mike, a Tampa hunk who works in construction, auto detailing and as a featured dancer at Xquisite.
He's second banana to the club's owner/emcee Dallas (Matthew McConaughey in full-on self-parody mode), who is preparing to relocate his operation to the big time in Miami. Mike doesn't want to be grinding onstage at 40, like fellow performers Ken (Matt Bomer, "White Collar"), who performs as Barbie's dream beau; Tarzan (weathered WWE star Kevin Nash); Latin loverboy Tito (Adam Rodriguez, "CSI: Miami") and Big Dick Richie ("True Blood" werewolf Joe Manganiello).
Mike's goal is designing custom furniture, but it's hard to land a bank loan when your income is wadded dollar bills. He meets 19-year-old airhead Adam (Alex Pettyfer) at the construction site, taking "the kid" under his wing and initiating him into the fraternity of tear-away pants. The Kid's a possible new attraction for the club, where Mike holds a small equity stake.
More important, he comes with an Attractive Sister Who Provides Useful Romantic Complications (Cody Horn). Uncertain whether she's more intrigued or appalled, she chides Mike for bringing Adam into this thicket of temptation, while slowly warming to the big guy. "My lifestyle isn't me!" Mike protests, and you can tell he realizes how lame that sounds as soon as he declares it.
The film is another canny move by Tatum, who admirably avoids pigeonhole roles. He's most convincing in this sort of self-effacing good guy role. He flirts wearing a spaniel expression, and makes Mike a scalawag rather than a lech. His body language onstage is as confident as a bullfighter, but in a scene where he has to humble himself before a kind, firm female bank officer, he's visibly diminished in his timid business suit. His scenes with Horn, who is fetchingly skeptical of him, snap with comedic energy.
The surface topic of "Magic Mike" is lust and love and the gaping chasm between physical and emotional intimacy. At heart, however, it's all about the Benjamins. The story is a well-thought-out essay on our topsy-turvy, economically stressed era.
Used to be women were chattel, the female body was a barter object, the male gaze was master of all it ogled. Now it's men's jobs that are downsized first, and it's employed women who are calling the shots. Olivia Munn shines as a pushy professional who keeps Mike on tap for booty calls. When Mike flirts with a couple of fine ladies in a bar, his goal isn't to get them into his apartment, it's to get them into Xquisite, and to get their cash into his thong.
Tatum's character is well into young adulthood, with middle age on the horizon; he won't be a sex grenade forever. Seeing him monkey-dance around the stage in pursuit of crumpled dollar bills is sad on so many levels. Dallas, who has been in the game longer, has learned to fake caring for his customers and dancers, but his smile always has money on its mind. Offstage the dancers talk about self-help books like "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," and Dallas says if he had a kid he would home-school him on nonstop telecasts of "Mad Money." When this Texas cowboy striver suits up as Uncle Sam for a strip-off, it's like a raunchy editorial cartoon come to life.
Alison Faulk's eyeglass-steaming dance routines cast the guys as Team USA fantasy figures: gunslingers, cops and soldiers. Soderbergh uses emphatic red and blue lighting to underscore the star-spangled all-American subtext. He's aiming to heal the rift between audience-pleasing pop movies and cinematic movies, and here he succeeds beyond expectations.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 Twitter: @colincovert