For another perspective on Magic Mike, check out Angie’s review.

There is no need to see Magic Mike for its plot. The moment things start to spiral out of control, it becomes quickly apparent that you already know how this cautionary tale of glitz and glamour ends. Boy meets world. World enraptures boy. Boy loses himself to world.

But Boogie Nights this is not. This is a Steven Soderbergh film, which means it lacks the sort of seedy sensationalism that characterized that film’s porn underworld. Magic Mike is a more observational, subtle affair, joyfully capturing the narcissistic pleasure of flaunting your body to a room full of howling women and then softly exposing the limitations of that pleasure.

The film was in part based on Channing Tatum‘s experiences as a 19-year-old male stripper in Tampa, and his age makes it obvious where the “in part” might come from. When the film begins, Tatum’s eponymous hero is already well situated in his male stripping career; the aforementioned boy is a 19-year-old kid named Adam, played by Alex Pettyfer (I Am Number Four), who finds himself being indoctrinated into this world right alongside the audience. Both characters could be externalizations of Tatum during different phases of his life, with each respective role reflecting a beginning and an end — one falling deeper into the hole, the other digging himself out of it.

Hopefully that’s where the similarities to Tatum’s real life end, as Adam also has a sister that Mike takes a liking to. Problem is, she doesn’t want to be around his lifestyle, which includes lots of sex and drugs and sexy, drug-addled girls with potbellied pigs. (The pig is an unintended scene-stealer, especially during the film’s most dramatically charged sequence. Keep an eye out.)

Mike likes his lifestyle though, at least for the time being. It keeps him living comfortably until he can fulfill his true dream of designing and selling custom furniture, a goal which is only growing more distant due to a down economy. But why accept those realities when you have a stage to show off your buff bod and killer dance moves, surrounded by women screaming for more? And if that doesn’t ease your woes, hopefully the three-ways with Olivia Munn will. Such comforts will surely provide long-lasting fulfillment, right? …Right?

Magic Mike is Steven Soderbergh doing what he does best, which is to say, making movies that aren’t necessarily the best, but making them as only he knows how. His flair for crisp, color-diffused digital cinematography is on full display here, giving the film that cinéma vérité sheen that’s become his trademark, and it’s not hard to guess what aspects of the story took his fancy. (Unusual industry? Check. Bad economy? Check. Corruption and moral consequences? Check. The cyclical nature of human needs and desires, with people feeding off those desires as a means of making money, and in turn satisfying needs and desires of their own? Er, check.)

Most interesting about the film is the way it earnestly depicts the frothy atmosphere of a male revue, bringing to light a marked difference in the way Soderbergh perceives gender roles — or at least in how he’s depicted them onscreen.

There’s an inherent sleaziness associated with going to a strip club. Culturally, they’re largely accepted as being sad, dimly-lit end-zones for desperate men; an isolated haven for guys to shamelessly think nasty thoughts about naked women that aren’t on their computer screens, and maybe even pay one to grind on their junk a little. Others still may use them to drown out their loneliness, affording them an illusion of intimacy that they can’t achieve through normal social interaction. That puts it one depressive stage shy of hiring a prostitute, and several thousand dollars shy of hiring an escort. (Hardly what I’d call a communal experience.)

Steven Soderbergh made a movie about this sort of falsely gratifying interaction called The Girlfriend Experience. It was not a happy film.

Comparatively, the male stripping in Magic Mike is downright fun. It’s silly and spirited and not at all vulgar, just as much about the tacky costumes and vivacious performances as it is about getting a free pass to ogle sexy dudes. Girls gather in groups for a night out and share some cheeky laughs together. It’s all about having a good time by being a little naughty. But a much more innocent kind of naughty; not, say, the kind that finds you getting arrested for touching yourself in libraries and public parks.

The depravity really only comes later, once the shows have ended. This is where the film’s sweet and cheery disposition turns a little sour, showing how easy it is to make the step from occasional guilt-free indulgence to noxious addiction. Such is the case when our lead duo gets sucked into the vacuous lives of their fellow stripper employees and over-the-top boss Dallas. (Played by Matthew McConaughey, in his best and funniest role since Dazed and Confused.)

But throughout, the male stripping remains strictly a carefree, superficial thrill. Soderbergh isn’t shining a light on women’s lustful longings, or highlighting some other dour aspect of human nature. And maybe that in itself is more revealing. What separates the sexual desires of men and women, and why have those desires manifested in the ways that they have in modern society? What does this say about how our respective genders define us? Or does this depiction reveal more about Soderbergh than it does our humanity?

If Soderbergh’s continued chronicling of these wildly different sides of human nature tells us anything, it’s that men carry with them a primal destructive tendency, and we need women to keep us in check — or in the case of Magic Mike, a woman, played by Cody Horn.

In keeping with his casting in Haywire and The Girlfriend Experience, Horn is an almost vacant presence, concurrently down-to-earth and unattainable. Her romance with Channing Tatum lacks spark, but she makes a serviceably alluring counterpart to his empty life of sex and partying, offering him the rare opportunity to engage in normal, human conversation. And sometimes, that’s all you need.

But that sure as hell isn’t what Magic Mike‘s target demographic is after.

No, Magic Mike is being sold as “that male stripping movie”, and on that front it more than delivers. Ample screentime is dedicated to thong-sporting hunky guys acting out all manner of cliched masculine routines, and Tatum gets plenty of chances to emasculate males in the audience with his spinning and gyrating-infused dance skills and Adonis physique.

Watching men strip down and dry-hump squealing girls may make some guys uncomfortable, either due to being self-conscious or suffering from a society-ingrained “dude, that’s gay” disposition, but others will have no problem laughing off the absurdity of it and enjoying the high-energy performances. Woman and men pulled in by the single-minded marketing campaign should do the same, potentially overlooking the thematic underpinnings of a film that’s otherwise a story of Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer and Matthew McConaughey struggling to keep their clothes on.

If that were the consequence of Magic Mike‘s appeal to popularity, that would be damned disappointing. But I guess sometimes what we want takes precedence over what we need. If only there were a film to show us why that’s not always a good thing…

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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About the Author

Adam Quigley can be reached at adamquigs[at]gmail[dot]com, or on Twitter at twitter.com/alwayswatching.

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