***1/2 (out of four)
I tell my wife that I really liked "Magic Mike," and she laughs. This does not surprise me.
For months, women and men who rarely see the skin they're interested in onscreen have hooted and hollered for a movie about male strippers, expecting ladies'-night-out debauchery after a trailer showcasing as many thongs as a "Piranha" sequel. At the movies, men are not usually the objects of ogling; they're the conquerors having all the fun. At the MTV Movie Awards earlier this month, a montage collected cult classic party movies like "Road Trip," "The Hangover" and "Animal House." Guess how many of those movies featured prominent, complex women who don't get topless?
"Magic Mike" is neither centered on women nor is it a full-fledged party movie. Those looking for the freewheeling jubilation or total nakedness of an actual strip club experience—almost no penises here, people—may go home unsatisfied. Yet director Steven Soderbergh's confident, electric drama, inspired by but not based on star Channing Tatum's brief stripping experience, becomes a funny and often sad portrait of temporary living, featuring some of its cast members' best work.
Tatum stars as Mike, who's Michael Lane to the banker he talks to about starting his own custome furniture business. But he's Magic Mike to the ladies who scream for the way he moves to Ginuwine's "Pony." Like Don Cheadle's stereo system-loving porn star in "Boogie Nights," Mike isn't his job, but only people he works with can see him as anything else. So he can flash all the charm (and onstage skills) he wants to Brooke (Cody Horn, underwhelming), the sister of the new stripper (Alex Pettyfer) Mike's taken under his wing, but she perceives a certain lifestyle and may not change her mind.
The script, from Lake Forest native Reid Carolin, doesn't necessarily break through that outsider close-mindedness, nor does it stray from the well-worn narrative of rising and falling stars. (Think of "The Artist," which already cribbed from "A Star is Born.") Yet "Magic Mike" neither objectifies nor judges; virtually every character wants to feel sexy at one point or another. Without becoming overly somber, the film also captures a vivid sense of slowly floundering opportunities, where permanence doesn't sound so great in a job you never expected to keep for long anyway. Surely this applies to plenty of people who aren't strippers.
Tatum and Pettyfer have never been more effective (not saying much in Pettyfer's case, admittedly). Matthew McConaughey, using his "all right all right all right" catchphrase for effortless, business-oriented swagger as club owner Dallas, embodies the savvy escape offered at the Xquisite club as well as what happens when one of the ex-strippers has nowhere else to go. Dallas is fine with it. Not everyone would be.
"May our children have rich parents," toasts Mike to Adam (Pettyfer) and a group of girls whom Mike suavely informs he and his friend can't possibly drink all these shots themselves. "Magic Mike" may be a movie about guys who take off their clothes, but its central conflict is the future looming large over the present, and different realities—real life and a supposed fantasy life—struggling to co-exist.
Onstage, "Big Dick" Richie (Joe Manganiello of "True Blood") rocks a fireman outfit. Backstage, he's afraid of fire. Were an actual blaze to start at the club, who there will save the muscular dude in the costume?