Rich Heldenfels

From the moment that the audience cheered the sight of Channing Tatum’s bare backside at a recent preview of Magic Mike, it was clear what many of the women in the crowd were expecting: a rowdy, raucous screen equivalent of a girls’ night out.

That, after all, is the way the male-stripper drama — directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Reid Carolin — has been promoted. The prospect of an unclothed Tatum, the movie hunk of the moment, by itself would get hearts thumping. Flank him with other strippers (among them Alex Pettyfer and White Collar’s Matt Bomer) and the thumping should shake the multiplex as hard as an action sequence in The Avengers.

But Soderbergh, Carolin and company had something else in mind for the actual movie. This is, and I am trying to say this as straight-faced as possible, the Saturday Night Fever of male strippers. It recalls that movie, and Tom Cruise’s Cocktail, and other films about men who have been getting by as fun-loving boys — but who eventually have to move on to adulthood, and mature relationships, if their lives are going to amount to anything. (It is also, very deservedly, R-rated.)

This certainly applies to Mike, played by Tatum, who as the movie begins is smoothly confident while working several day jobs as well as stripping (although his time-management skills are never entirely explained). He is the centerpiece of a male revue run by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey); Mike has been led to believe they will be full business partners down the road. And he has dreams of owning his own custom-furniture business, although those dreams keep getting deferred.

Mike’s view of life changes when he meets Adam (Pettyfer), a going-nowhere guy whom Mike brings into the male-stripper game. Adam loves the life. Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) is less delighted — and not at all thrilled with Mike, even though he promises to protect Adam.

Need I tell you that protecting Adam is not so easy? And that, after seeing his world through Brooke’s eyes, Mike begins to rethink his priorities? And that you can probably guess where a lot of this will lead?

Magic Mike, in short, wants to be taken much more seriously than the promotion for it has implied. Yes, there are stripping-and-dancing sequences aplenty, although they are sometimes cut short to keep the plot moving. (When one scene was abruptly cut away from, I thought I heard one spectator complain loudly.)

Tatum is not only handsome, but he also is very good at showing vulnerability and longing. That made his character work in 21 Jump Street, for example, and it helps make Mike a little more interesting here. McConaughey, though, takes over the movie just about every time he is on screen, whether egging on the audience in his strip club or revealing his ruthless, self-absorbed underside. Pettyfer does not make much out of his role, which doesn’t have many notes to it anyway, but Horn has a way of grabbing your attention; look at what crosses her face during a scene where Brooke watches Mike perform.

But the movie, in the end, is too much of a knock-off of previous films. And the dances get numbing after a while. Sure, that’s deliberate on Soderbergh’s part; this little bunch of club performers is never going to be all that creative, and the staleness of the later dances reflects Mike’s growing weariness with the job. But in a movie that is being sold so much on the beefcake sequences, a little more flair would have been in order. Instead, Magic Mike is like visiting a strip club, only to discover the dancers are performing Death of a Salesman.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.