BY GEORGE GRELLA
(R), directed by Steven Soderbergh
If nothing else, “Magic Mike,” the new movie from Steven Soderbergh, of all people, suggests that in our time the chick flick demonstrates more flexibility than one might ordinarily expect. Appropriately thin in its plot and completely predictable in its resolution, like both film versions of “Sex and the City,” the film dedicates itself to female sexuality; it deals with the subject, however, from an entirely different point of view, reversing some of the stereotypes of the form. Mirroring the complaints of so many feminists, it shows men exploited as sex objects, with the difference that the males in question appear to appreciate the exploitation.
Channing Tatum plays the Mike of the title, the featured dancer at Club Xquisite, a male strip joint in Tampa, Florida, owned by a supremely sleazy manipulator named Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Although he makes good money as a stripper, Mike also works at other jobs, including roofing, but thinks of himself as an entrepreneur — he dreams of owning his own business as a custom furniture maker, an odd touch. Not surprisingly, he also enjoys a certain success with the opposite sex: we first see him waking up, naked, with a couple of female companions similarly clothed.
In his roofing job, Mike meets and befriends Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a naive and feckless college dropout, and persuades Dallas to give the kid some kind of job at Club Xquisite. When one of the strippers apparently ingests a few too many drugs, Dallas throws Adam into the breach; though no dancer, the good-looking, muscular lad manages to take off his clothes convincingly enough and attract the loud appreciation of the all-female audience. Anyone who’s ever seen any showbiz flick knows that Adam, tutored in bumps and grinds by the overbearing Dallas, will of course ascend from anonymity to his own kind of stardom with all the perks the position commands — money, women, drugs, etc.
One of the problems with the script of “Magic Mike” derives from its apparent confusion over just which character, Mike or Adam, should occupy the center of attention. The writer and director initially seem to trace the venerable parabola of a performer’s meteoric rise and fall, the usual cautionary tale of a talent destroyed by its own success. At some point, however, they lose interest in Adam (no wonder — he’s a passive dope) and return to their title character, showing Mike’s entirely serious attempts to turn his earnings into the achievement of his dreams.
Amid all that relatively nonsensical matter, a slender and quite unconvincing love story develops, the growing relationship between Mike and Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn). A dour, disapproving observer of her brother’s career, Brooke hardly seems Mike’s type, but the series of hostile remarks she aims at him signals something like a happy outcome. Cody Horn never cracks a smile, possibly indicating her discomfort at appearing in the movie.
The real object of “Magic Mike,” of course, is the constant display of a half dozen muscular young men in a series of dance numbers intended to excite an audience of screaming females, both on- and off-screen. The men appear in a variety of costumes in a several different set pieces — they dress in trench coats and fedoras like shady private eyes, in sailor suits, Tarzan loincloths, construction outfits, cowboy chaps, police uniforms, etc. They jump around, strip down to thongs and jock straps, select women from the shrieking throng to join them on the stage, simulate several quite athletic sexual positions, and collect hundreds of dollar bills that the happy ladies stuff into what’s left of their clothing.
Surely pleasing the intended audience, the dancers all display a good deal of muscular flesh, the usual bulging biceps and sixpack abs, along with the bare buttocks that always inspire louder audience volume. Channing Tatum, who apparently began his career in the stripping business, seems most graceful and athletic for a big man, though in striking contrast, his acting technique leans toward the stolid and clumsy. The film hangs its weak plot and its unconvincing performances on the bodies of the dancers, ending up just about as naked, or in other words, quite inadequately covered in every way — it might even be better with some clothes on.