FILM REVIEW: MAGIC MIKE

By Michael Phillips 2014-03-20

Tribune Newspapers Critic

3 1/2 stars

It's crazy to oversell "Magic Mike," or fluff it up into something its makers never intended. It is not a major motion picture. It is not searing melodrama, though in story outline terms -- the least interesting terms by which to engage with director Steven Soderbergh's loose, funky and blithely engaging workplace comedy -- it resembles "Showgirls" with showboys, though without the hysteria or the punitive humiliation.

So what is it, then? Inspired by star and producer Channing Tatum's own experience as a male stripper, "Magic Mike" is "42nd Street," "On the Waterfront," the aforementioned "Showgirls" and a hundred other movies neatly tucked into one little thong. This nimble diversion makes up for a lot of higher-minded or lower-aiming Hollywood junk of late.

The characters don't treat one another like punch lines or idiots. There are no real villains in the piece. Purest corn, "Magic Mike" nonetheless has a human pulse and a sense of humor to go along with its willingness to entertain.

Tatum first worked with the frenetically prolific Soderbergh on the eccentric and (metaphorically) stripped-down "Haywire," which went nowhere and back with the public. I'd be surprised if "Magic Mike" met the same fate. When the project's right, as it was with Soderbergh's "Ocean's 11" remake (and, with diminishing returns, the sequels), the director has a knack for revitalizing the oldest cliches in the book, while setting them at an aesthetic remove.

Soderbergh's also terrific at letting his actors play up to the best of their abilities, whatever their abilities. This is a polite way of saying Tatum, as the construction worker by day who works constructively in a different line of work by night, has never been better. Even if he's not much of an actor -- when things get serious, Tatum appears to be giving birth, painfully, to the simplest of lines of dialogue -- he's increasingly comfortable and likable on screen.

Set in Tampa, Fla., cast in a perma-glow of mustard-yellow light in Soderbergh's own digital cinematography, "Magic Mike" is about a guy who has a lot but wants more, and a younger guy who doesn't yet know where he's going. Mike is employed as a roofer and has a notion (minus a bank loan) to start a business for his handmade furniture. In short order, Reid Carolin's screenplay introduces a character named Adam (Alex Pettyfer), aka "The Kid," a newbie on Mike's latest construction job site.

In no time, Mike is introducing The Kid to the wonderful world of the Club Xquisite, where Mike and cohorts bump it, grind it and thong it for the ladies and for the financial well-being of their employer/wrangler, an ex-stripper named Dallas. This Lone Star satyr is played by Matthew McConaughey, cutting loose in precisely the opposite fashion from the way Tom Cruise is cutting loose in "Rock of Ages." In other words, McConaughey looks as if he's having a blast. He's a devilish movie star, and Tatum can learn a lot from the way he commands a scene, clothes or no.

One of the pleasures of "Magic Mike" is its egalitarian spirit and dedication to the ensemble. The budding romance between Mike and The Kid's big sister, played by Cody Horn, who has no visible performance nerves of any sort, provides a hook on which to hang everything else. As Mike wrestles with his business ambitions and strives to prove to The Kid's protective sister that he's more than just a slab of meat, The Kid is led into temptations. Luckily Soderbergh handles these developments lightly. My favorite scene is the one, oddly, most like Soderbergh's "Che": a day trip out to a sandbar for a picnic, which becomes an occasion for the audience to eavesdrop on one conversation, then another, in free-form, essayistic style. Nothing much happens to advance the plot, but like some of the jungle training sequences in "Che," parts of a whole emerge naturally, a few connections are made and the film moves on.

Mainstream audiences may wish for more -- more thump in the drama, noisier narrative developments to compete with the generous procession of club routines involving firemen, firemen's hoses and the like. Others, I hope, will take "Magic Mike" the way it is, as a group portrait of a semiexotic species, Strippus americanus. "Women. Money. And a good time." That's what Mike offers The Kid. The key line in the script, though, is McConaughey's insinuating "all right, all right, all right, all RIGHT!" come-on to the Club Xquisite customers, promising much, and then, in its earnestly low-rent yet satisfying way, delivering. The movie does the same.

MPAA rating: R (for pervasive sexual content, brief graphic nudity, language and some drug use).

Running time: 1:50.

Cast: Channing Tatum (Mike Martingano); Matthew McConaughey (Dallas); Olivia Munn (Joanna); Cody Horn (Brooke); Alex Pettyfer (The Kid).

Credits: Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Reid Carolin, produced by Channing Tatum, Gregory Jacobs, Nick Wechsler and Reid Carolin. A Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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