“Magic Mike” is so much better than it needs to be that it’s sick. Yes, it’s the Channing Tatum male stripper movie; yes, it shamelessly exploits defenseless hunks for their rippling pecs and tearaway pants. No, fifty percent of America, give or take, will not be buying tickets. This is ladies’ night at the multiplex.
So, fine, guys, what you don’t watch you can’t miss. Director Steven Soderbergh is working very near the top of his game here, and if “Magic Mike” tells an old, old story about a young man, his talent, his rise, and his fall — see everything from “Saturday Night Fever” to “Boogie Nights” — he brings the confidence of a born filmmaker and a cast that’s sharper than their characters and ready to play.
Best of all, the movie stands just far enough outside the world it depicts to provide irony and distance and a saving sense of humor while still bringing the cheese steak. Mike Lane (Tatum) has the body and the moves, and he’s fully aware he’s in the business of selling safe sex to women dying for a little fantasy. But he likes to call himself an entrepreneur, and “Magic Mike” is almost as much about business as pleasure.
The key word is almost. On one of his contracting day jobs in Tampa, Mike befriends a rangy lost boy, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), and brings him along to his evening gig at a club called Dallas’s. The owner, Dallas, is a cracker who’s past his stripping prime but doesn’t care; he’s played with no fat on his body or his performance by Matthew McConaughey, who can finally say he’s found a role that matches his peculiar and dissolute talents. Dallas breathes fire for the hell of it; his come-on is a randy “All right, all right, all right, all right.”
Narratively, “Magic Mike” goes nowhere new, and, in fact, Soderbergh seems to take a retro pleasure in the story’s very old-hatness. So why is the movie such ridiculous fun? The visuals are part of it: Acting once again as his own cameraman, the director paints his Florida the color of a dirty, luscious lemon, and he picks up on details others might miss: The plastic wrap on Mike’s car dashboard, the hurricane tape on the windows. Everything here is temporary, provisional, which is a miracle when you’re 19 and a looming catastrophe when you’re 30.
Mostly, though, the movie lives for its strip numbers, which are hilarious exercises in full frontal camp. The soundtrack propels us forward with devilish song choices; the film’s energy is loose, infectious, undeniable. Soderbergh has made a party of a movie with intimations of disaster; there are drugs and thugs toward the end, and a good-time girl (Riley Keough) with a creepy pet piglet. But when “Magic Mike” turns moralistic, it fails to convince. It’s much better at the night before than the morning after.
Tatum, in case you hadn’t noticed, has become a star. The story lifts off from the actor’s own early, ah, work experiences, and the shock, as always, is that such a big lummox can move so fast and so well. He sells us on his character’s innate decency, his small-business ambitions and he lets us see that Mike’s smarter than all the other dancers but that he’s still not smart enough.
Most of all, Tatum appears to get the great carnal joke about men taking their clothes off for an audience of paying women — that the tables are turned, that the watchers become the watched, that the objectifiers turn into sex objects. Everyone gets to play, no one gets hurt, and the husbands and boyfriends (who are barely to be seen in this movie) never even have to know. McConaughey’s Dallas rides above it all like a demented down-home Puck. All right, all right, all right, all right.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org