Let's get this out of the way, shall we? Magic Mike features gorgeous men dancing in thongs. In a world of commercial patriarchy some equal opportunity ogling is in order, and if women are geeking out about Channing Tatum's bare ass or Joe Manganiello's pelvic muscles, well, that is their due. Any condescension on that score would be ill-advised considering the unabashed male glee taken in movies like Piranha 3DD.
But that is not why Magic Mike is good. That's not why I like it, and that's not why it will be a box office success.
Magic Mike is, simply put, a good movie. It's funny and dirty, honest and exhilarating. It offers a straightforward story well executed: a character we like wants something we understand but must first overcome obstacles we dread. Mike works hard at several different jobs, saving every dime and crumpled dollar in order to invest in his own custom furniture business. Despite his sizable down payment, the bank is unwilling to offer him a loan due to lack of credit.
Clear stakes and motivation make Mike a strong character; Channing Tatum's irrepressible charisma and innate humor make Mike a memorable one. Tatum captivates the camera in his every scene, taking up all the air in the space with his outsized, breezy charm. He's honestly wonderful in the role, a character the audience buys and likes from the first moment. It's common knowledge that Tatum contributed to the story (written by Reid Carolin) with his own tales of being a stripper, and he certainly contributed to the choreography because the man can move. But Tatum offers an earnest, engaging performance that turns Magic Mike from a joke into a human.
And Steven Soderbergh certainly knows what to do with a strong story and a gutsy performance. He takes those two elements and makes them stick with his impeccable pacing, a knowing soundtrack and some beautifully framed shots. Magic Mike is gorgeously edited and warmly lit, creating a distinctly Floridian feel to the outside scenes, while the inside of the Xquisite Male Revue is dark and cool and slick.
Once the film establishes this sturdy foundation - further supported by Mike's fraternal interest in Alex Pettyfer's "The Kid," an aimless 19-year-old who reminds him of himself - it can afford to get silly. And boy, does it. The muscles, choreography and thongs don't make up the most delightful part of the stripper routines; that honor belongs to a sly sense of humor displayed through song choice, costumes and props. We've got Tarzan and cowboys and firefighters and construction workers. The men dance with fire and spin on ropes and have gun duels. They engage the women in the audience with tongue fully in cheek, and the women love it. Arousal is a factor, but far more importantly, The Cock-Rocking Kings Of Tampa offer entertainment. These guys work hard, they practice daily, they spend untold amounts of money on production value. It's not just tea-bagging and ass-jiggling; it's a show.
And Matthew McConaughey is the ringmaster. The man was made for this role. He's raunchy and ridiculous, larger than life. At one point he actually comes on stage with a bongo drum hung around his neck. The role of Dallas is McConaughey's magnum opus. He is absolutely hilarious here, but also slightly sinister. We never entirely trust Dallas' assertion that he will take care of Mike. McConaughey brings a dark magnetism to the role that belies his silly leather pants and tiny work-out shorts.
Pettyfer does fairly well in the film. He doesn't stand much of a chance next to McConaughey and Tatum, of course; nobody does. Every other character dims a little next to their oversized allure. Tatum's love interest, played by Cody Horn, is also pretty good, and Olivia Munn is just fine, too. But Pettyfer does a strong job of selling the threat hanging over The Kid; Adam is capricious and young, and he doesn't have Mike's strength of character. This life can do serious damage to the irresolute. But while the drugs and drinking play a part in the film, as they must, Soderbergh presents the lifestyle without preaching or judgment. Magic Mike never feels like a lesson; it only feels like a story. A great, exhilarating, nonchalant, free-wheeler of a story anchored only by a few strong points that allow everything else to whip around in the messy tumult.
What's fascinating about Magic Mike is that it manages to be both the silly sex romp of the trailers and something more entirely without ever feeling uneven. The sexy mischief and the darkness and the earnest character beats all fit together in one terrifically entertaining, perfectly pitched success. Soderbergh so often makes movies that are uncategorizable, and Magic Mike is no different. Rarely is a movie this smart and fun.