What three words best describe "Magic Mike"?
"Funny, sexy, cool," says Joe Manganiello, aka werewolf Alcide on HBO's "True Blood," who costars in the new movie from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh.
Well, that's a start. But there's a lot more going on in this R-rated movie, which opens June 29 and blends drama and humor with some incredibly eye-popping scenes of male strippers.
Not since 1980's "American Gigolo," which featured a young Richard Gere as an expensive male escort, has a movie about beefcake been so exuberant and yet so ambitious.
Female moviegoers are already intrigued.
"Some of my friends on social media are nearly panting about it," says Anne Brodie, a film writer/critic for Metro News Canada, with a laugh. She's noticed a level of enthusiasm that is making "Magic Mike" seem like one of the event films of the summer.
"I'm just glad to see a bunch of guys who aren't making an action movie," notes Brodie. "It's about time they try to please us."
Is something happening here beside the fact that multiplexes soon could seem a little more like bachelorette parties? And is there a connection to the "Fifty Shades of Grey" phenomenon that's been steaming up the book best-seller lists?
"I see it as on the same continuum," says Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of the Women and Hollywood blog on www.IndieWire.com. "There's something going on here."
Marketing male celebrities as eye candy has been trending for a while now in TV, advertising and music, from the Super Bowl ad with a skin-baring David Beckham to the crowded abs-fab roster of current singers.
"Magic Mike" reflects that trend, but it also steps up the game. Right there on the big screen, well-known actors bare almost all and approach the bump-and-grind style of the dance numbers with gusto. But the movie also explores the main character as a person with dreams of a different life and takes a fresh approach to some gender stereotypes.
This is Hollywood taking a familiar genre and story line and reinventing it in a way that could make people stop and think.
In the movie, Channing Tatum plays Mike, an entrepreneur and talented furniture designer who earns cash for his serious ambitions by performing with an all-male revue. Matthew McConaughey portrays the club's owner. Newcomer Alex Pettyfer is a 19-year-old novice who learns the rules of the job from Tatum.
Manganiello, Matt Bomer of USA's "White Collar" and Adam Rodriguez of "CSI: Miami" also portray dancers. Cody Horn plays Pettyfer's sister, a medical assistant who's intrigued by Mike but leery of his lifestyle.
Funny, smart and sexy
The movie -- the idea was inspired by Tatum's own experiences as a dancer -- has been getting a big publicity push from trailers that include highlights like McConaughey warning a crowd of screaming women that it's against the law to touch the dancers, then adding, "I think I see a lot of lawbreakers up in this house."
That's a smart way to balance the film's steamier aspects and also grab attention in an online-driven marketplace of endless entertainment choices. "Fun's the name of the game. Fun can save the box office," says Brodie.
Recently, Manganiello stirred a minor frenzy when he appeared onstage at the MTV Movie Awards wearing a fireman costume from the movie. Talking this week by phone, the actor says "Magic Mike" should appeal to a wide moviegoing audience that includes women, gay men and even straight men, who he's convinced will find the comic elements of the story hysterical.
Manganiello is already sensing the movie's potential. "I'm going to go ahead and say that I think just about every single woman on the planet that I've run into since we finished shooting in October is going to see this movie," he says jovially. "I think we've tapped into something. And as crazy, weird and odd and nonsensical as it seems, I think we're onto something with that fireman suit."
But there's also a sociocultural side to "Magic Mike" that could give academics an excuse for repeat viewings. Although the cinema has always created both male and female sex symbols, the equation between them remains unequal.
A study from the University of Southern California of the 100 biggest box-office movies from 2008 showed that female characters had fewer speaking roles and were more likely to wear sexy clothing than male characters. The same was true for appearing partially nude -- the numbers there were 24% for female characters vs. 8% for male characters.
Compare that to the 2011 statistics from the Motion Picture Association of America that show the gender composition of moviegoers in the U.S. and Canada is consistent with the overall population: 51% women and 49% men.
That info essentially fits the usual explanation for gender inequalities: Male-dominated Hollywood is most comfortable with treating women as eye candy, despite female box-office clout.
But in "Magic Mike," some of the old dramatic stereotypes are turned upside-down. Here, it's the guy whose work as a furniture designer is being undervalued and who has to convince women that he has more to offer than his looks.
"It's just such an interesting dynamic to see the same words coming from a man," says Silverstein of the movie's trailer. "That's why I think Steven Soderbergh is so interesting, because he likes to mess with gender stereotypes, which he clearly is doing here."
"Magic Mike" has the potential to be a financial success, thanks in no small part to Tatum's box office cachet. This year, he helped push the critical flop "The Vow" to a $125-million domestic box office total.
"Channing Tatum is hotter than hot now. Not only his looks, he's a really different kind of movie star," says Silverstein. "He caters to women. He's a male movie star who makes movies that women want to see."
The power of female consumers has also driven the worldwide success of the explicitly erotic "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy, a book series with such mainstream popularity among women that it's been nicknamed mommy porn. So far, "Fifty Shades of Grey" has sold millions of copies and been snapped up for a movie project. Like a viral video, its grassroots popularity has made the publishing and film worlds pay attention -- and brought fresh focus to the market for sexy fantasy aimed at women.
"The e-book came out just about the time we premiered," says Howard Braunstein, executive producer of "The Client List," a new hit series for Lifetime. "I remember thinking, 'What does this say about our culture?' and, rather selfishly, 'Will this help us be a hit?' "
"The Client List," which wraps its first season at 10 tonight, is about a masseuse named Riley (Jennifer Love Hewitt) who gets a job at a spa to support her family after being abandoned by her husband. In the first episode, Riley found out that her clients want more than just massage therapy.
That debut featured a montage of handsome, hunky male customers played by extras. "I always have these visions of these beautiful guys who come in, they don't say anything, but they're being massaged by Love (Hewitt). They're thinking, 'I have the best job!' " jokes Braunstein.
But Braunstein says the series, spun off a TV movie of the same name starring Hewitt, balances the real drama of Riley facing life as a single mom with the fantasy element of her handsome customers. "My instinct is why shouldn't women want to look at beautiful men, just like men want to look at beautiful women? That's certainly the direction we went in," he explains.
It's a duality that makes "Magic Mike" so interesting. There's the art part, which could be saying something about the sexual liberation and societal shifts that women have experienced over the past 40 years. And there's the commerce part, the growing recognition that women are ready for more uninhibited escapism than the average romantic comedy provides.
"Magic Mike" certainly has people talking, inside and outside the film industry. "What I'm really excited about is that conversation now has layers," says Silverstein. "Hollywood is talking about it and Steven Soderbergh is pushing this conversation."