Easily the best film ever made about male strippers, Magic Mike is yet another feather in the cap of not only director Steven Soderbergh – who again proves himself adept at yet another genre – but star Channing Tatum, whose miraculous career turnaround this year is truly something to marvel at.
Finally appearing to realise the promise of his standout work in 2006’s A Guide to Recognising Your Saints, Tatum emerges as a source of both uproarious comedy and gravitas here, playing the titular Mike, a stripper who takes young drifter Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing. Working with manager Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the strip troupe teaches Adam everything they know, while Mike yearns to kick-start his life’s passion – a one-of-a-kind furnishings company – and quit the business altogether.
Though shrewdly marketed as lightweight fare for a girl’s night out, Magic Mike is in fact a far more involving and dramatically satisfying film than one would reasonably expect. Purportedly based rather loosely on Tatum’s own work as a stripper, there’s a clear effort made here to avoid stereotypes that might have resulted in a Showgirls-type fiasco, rather balancing its aspirations as a film that delivers both eye candy and an interesting, emotionally engaging story.
While directed with a typically attentive eye by the reliable Soderbergh, it is the surprisingly nuanced turns by Tatum and young up-and-comer Alex Pettyfer that prove most telling. Tatum, who showed himself a knowing comic actor in 21 Jump Street, is a likable, charming lead here in a more down-to-Earth, relatable role. That Mike is a stripper is often immaterial – he is a driven, hard-working young man looking to achieve his goals and escape the rigour of a day’s grind.
Pettyfer, scarcely recognisable as the fresh-faced youngster who started out in the British kids’ spy film Stormbreaker, graduates from underwhelming tween vehicles like I Am Number Four and Beastly into a more illuminating showcase at Soderbergh’s behest. Pettyfer’s flawless American accent and a slyly nuanced performance – emphasising the benefits of a less-is-more approach – should make him a rising star to watch. Matthew McConaughey, meanwhile, continues to surge on a wave of career highs after committed turns in Tropic Thunder, The Lincoln Lawyer and of course, Killer Joe, with another that girds effortlessly on his confident charm.
Although frequently funny and fully indulging the decadence of its material – a scantily-clad brawl at a frat house is especially unforgettable – what distinguishes the film most is the more serious-minded turn of its third act. Tactfully engaging with the profession’s less-savoury periphery – of working in a field that so ably invites the illicit and the dangerous – Soderbergh does so in a way that never feels forced and elevates his characters beyond reductive beefcake clichés.
The concerns of Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) might prove to be the most conventional element of the film, but they are in their own way a smart inversion of the stereotype; the film’s women are typically strong, assured characters, and it is the men who are in physical and existential crisis. The burgeoning romantic subplot between Brooke and Mike would feel shoehorned in lesser hands, but Soderbergh eases it along a relaxed trajectory; it is about small moments, and steers away from dramatic portent that would collapse it entirely.
Rather, there are universal themes here – of creating personal meaning out of life, the difference between the personal and professional, and pursuing dreams against adversity. Soderbergh, as unlikely a director as any, fires it home with his usual fastidousness, and the performances, big and small, are stellar.
Magic Mike is in cinemas now.