'Magic Mike' Review - Serious Drama, Unserious Thrills

The one and only time my non-cinephile girlfriends have ever seemed truly jealous of my job is when I mentioned in passing that I'd reviewing Magic Mike. "The male stripper movie!" they exclaimed. "Oh my God, I can't wait to see that." The appeal was obvious: Magic Mike promised to dish out cheese, sleaze, and glitter a-plenty, not to mention a hot, heaping dose of mostly naked men (among them Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Matt Bomer, and Joe Mangianello) busting out their best dance moves.

Unfortunately for them, it turns out that Magic Mike is not that movie. Or rather, it is, but only intermittently. The rest of the time, Magic Mike is a Steven Soderbergh drama that just so happens to be set in the world of male stripping. That mostly turns out to be a good thing, although I suspect the guys and gals who come looking for a "male Showgirls," as one of my pals put it, won't necessarily agree.

By far the best thing Magic Mike has going for it is Tatum. He's the kind of actor who can coast on sheer likability even when his actual acting is a bit shoddy, but he's firing on all cylinders here. Tatum exudes warmth, humor, and sincerity throughout, and even elevates some of the clumsy monologues he's given.

Perhaps it helps that he's allowed, for the first time in years, to demonstrate the dancing skills that made him so famous in the first place. It's sheer joy to watch him move, regardless of how much or how little he's wearing, or whether or not you're personally turned on by him. In Haywire, Soderbergh allowed his camera to sit back and revel in watching a master fighter (MMA star Gina Carano) at work. He does the same thing with Tatum and the other studly strippers here.

If Magic Mike showcases Tatum's talents, though, it does the same for Pettyfer's limitations. As handsome as he is, he's such a lightweight as an actor that the Kid barely even registers despite being the second lead and Mike's self-described "best friend." The Kid isn't necessarily supposed to be likable — as one character puts it early on, he's a "taker" — but he's not really interesting, either.

Similarly prominent, and similarly incompetent, is Cody Horn as the Kid's sister and Mike's love interest. Her Brooke is supposed to represent the normal world outside of stripping that the Kid originally comes from and Mike longs for. However, she's so boring and unpleasant that it's a wonder Mike doesn't just run straight back into Dallas' greased-up arms.

Not that it'd necessarily solve anything if he did. Soderbergh is interested in neither escapist fantasy nor cautionary tale, so Mike's attempts to get out of the dancer lifestyle are complicated by real-world issues. Unfortunately, that nuanced approach is often undermined by a graceless screenplay that lurches from one plot point to the next. Maybe it's a stylistic choice rather than an accident, but at the worst moments, the blunt style makes Magic Mike feel less like a good movie than an outline of a good movie.

Still, the film succeeds more often than not. The first half of Magic Mike is the more entertaining one, as it takes us through the peculiar ins and outs (ahem) of the industry. A cute little bromance begins to develop between Mike and the Kid, all manner of sex toys and holiday-themed thongs parade across the screen, and much good-natured ribbing is enjoyed by the tight-knit dance crew. In one particularly hilarious sequence, the Kid practices the art of seduction in a mirror as Dallas guides him along.

However, it's the darker, messier second half that ultimately proves more rewarding. Magic Mike never gets truly dark or twisted, but Soderbergh's not afraid to occasionally let it get a little ugly. Defying Hollywood tradition, nothing's wrapped up in a nice little bow at the end; in fact, most of the characters' major problems remain open-ended. Magic Mike handily delivers on the ripped, scantily clad dude front, sure, but those pleasures turn out to be fleeting. The uneasy, bittersweet drama surrounding it is what sticks around.

/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10.0