Steven Soderbergh makes movies about sexy subjects, then strips away the sexiness about them. He is fascinated by process, often to a clinical extent.
In recent years this has been true of "The Girlfriend Experience" (starring real-life porn star Sasha Grey as a high-priced Manhattan call girl), "Contagion" (about a viral outbreak that claims lives worldwide) and "Haywire" (featuring mixed-martial artist Gina Carano as a special-ops agent seeking revenge for a betrayal). Even the glitzy, star-studded "Ocean's 11," one of Soderbergh's most pleasingly escapist films, takes its time laying out every detail of its ambitious Las Vegas casino heist.
Now he's directed "Magic Mike," about the cheesy world of male stripping at a cheesy club in Tampa, Fla.
Yes, the dance numbers themselves exude masculine, muscular heat - how could they not with guys like Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer and Joe Manganiello strutting on stage in barely-there costumes? But Soderbergh and writer Reid Carolin take us behind the scenes and linger over the minutiae of these performers' daily lives. They go thong shopping. They rehearse their routines. They lift weights backstage. And they count their dollar bills when "It's Raining Men" has stopped blaring from the sound system and their work is done. Even the after-hours hook-ups with liquored-up ladies from the audience feel like one more obligatory step, like brushing your teeth before going to bed.
It all seems glamorous and thrilling at first for Pettyfer's character, Adam, who becomes known as The Kid. A 19-year-old neophyte in this neon-colored world, he serves as our wide-eyed guide once the more established Mike (Tatum) recruits him to be a dancer at the Club Xquisite male revue. Comparisons to "Boogie Nights," both for the structure and the sexual subject matter, are inevitable. But Soderbergh, who also shot and edited the film under his usual pseudonyms, intentionally avoids the kind of high style and histrionics that marked Paul Thomas Anderson's lurid look at the porn industry in the `70s.
A more apt point of comparison would be the original "Sex & the City" movie; it'll have a similar appeal for straight women and gay men in equal measure. This is a movie that's tailor-made for groups of friends to get together and giggle and ogle at the spectacle of it all. And it is a lot of fun - there's no shame, we're all friends here - but it's also more substantial than you might expect, and more mundane.
Tatum, who's also a producer on the film, understands the allure of this lifestyle: He lived it when he was The Kid's age, briefly working as a male stripper before breaking into acting, and "Magic Mike" is kinda-sorta inspired by that time. Anyone who's seen "Step Up," the 2006 movie that put him on the map, knows what a gifted dancer he is. But here, he's just mesmerizing: confident, creative, acrobatic and, above all, seductive. `Cause that's the whole point.
"Magic Mike" follows one long booze-infused summer as Mike, The Kid and their co-stars work the ladies while their boss, stripper-turned-club-owner Dallas (McConaughey), makes plans to expand to Miami. This is an excellent fit for McConaughey, who's doing some of the best work of his career lately between this, "Bernie" and the upcoming thriller "Killer Joe." All the swagger is there - and the performance does have some clever nods to his off-screen party-boy persona - but he's also willing to show a darker and more dangerous side as he gets older, as if he isn't so interested anymore in making us like him. And that actually makes him more likable.
Also showing an intriguing presence is newcomer Cody Horn as The Kid's older sister, Brooke, who lets him sleep on her couch and tries in vain to help him find a real job. She has a strong but laid-back presence, and she remains the no-nonsense voice of reason when The Kid's hard-partying tendencies start spinning out of control.
Yes, "Magic Mike" is a bit of a formulaic cautionary tale about the perils of having too much, too soon. And the character who's the catalyst for The Kid's inevitable downfall, played by Riley Keough, is barely introduced and never feels fleshed out enough as a legitimate threat.
Mike helps keep this fantasy world grounded in truth; a self-described entrepreneur, he strips - and works construction jobs, and details cars - all in the hopes of saving enough money to start his own custom furniture business. There's nothing magical or even sexy about that: it's just the cold, hard reality of our time.
Come for the beefcake, stay for the economics lesson.
"Magic Mike," a Warner Bros. release, is rated R for pervasive sexual content, brief graphic nudity, language and some drug use. Running time: 110 minutes. Three stars out of four.