For those of us who have been touting Channing Tatum’s talent since A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Step Up, Magic Mike isn’t exactly eye-opening validation. Based in part on Tatum’s pre-stardom life as a male stripper, it’s something of a given that the actor would be confident and comfortable here. Yet he still brings an effortlessness to his performance that’s remarkable. Oh, and the movie is a good reminder that he can really dance.
Tatum plays the title character, an aspiring entrepreneur who has three or four sources of income – the most lucrative one being stripping for bachelorette parties and girls’ nights out at a Tampa nightclub. At the start of the film, Mike snags a new recruit named Adam (Alex Pettyfer), enabling us to learn the business through this rookie’s eyes. What follows is a fairly conventional melodrama – especially in moral terms – that’s most interesting for Tatum’s performance and the way director Steven Soderbergh emphasizes an overall air of economic desperation.
Everyone in Magic Mike is angling to make a buck as quickly and easily as possible. Adam, certainly, jumping on stage with the first flash of singles, but also the club’s owner, Dallas (played by Matthew McConaughey in full preen). Scoffing at the idea of any sort of education, Dallas announces in one of his many blustering scenes that if he had a kid, he’d keep him home from school and sit him in front of CNBC’s “Mad Money with Jim Cramer.”
Opposed to this is Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) – who earns average pay at a 9-to-5 job – and, eventually, Mike himself. As we learn in a key scene in which Mike tries to get a business loan from a bank, his end game is to raise enough money to launch his own design-and-build furniture business. The arc here is clear – our hero must learn that there is more to life than easy money and casual sex – and Soderbergh does his best to convince us that the movie actually believes in it.
Consider, for example, how he shoots the Tampa sky (as usual, Soderbergh serves as his own cinematographer). Much of Magic Mike takes place at dawn, after a night of partying, and Soderbergh emphasizes the grayness of the early light. This isn’t exactly the Floridian paradise that Mike and his boys believe they’re living in. The one moment of sunny wonder – and it’s a stunner – is a beach stroll shared by Mike and Brooke in which the sun glistens off the water, delicately reflecting onto their skin. (It’s as if Soderbergh has turned the sun into a natural disco ball.) It’s telling that Brooke, who represents the right path, gets this single scene of clean beauty.
It must be said that a different sort of beauty is at work in Mike’s dance numbers, especially a climactic one in which he goes against Dallas’ orders and unveils a new routine. It’s an act of defiance – a declaration of independence – and Tatum channels anger, rebellion and exuberance into each move. It’s in stark contrast to the casual charm he exhibits in most of the rest of the movie, and a suggestion that he might, indeed, have range. Now someone get him an all-out movie musical so he can show it.