There are two rules at Club Xquisite: The show must go on — and the clothes must come off.
So says impresario Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), who presides over Tampa’s steamiest all-male dance revue, which is led by the charismatic heartthrob who goes by the name of “Magic Mike” (Channing Tatum). Although he’s a sensational dancer -- he's got the moves of a hip-hop Fred Astaire or a hot-to-trot Gene Kelly -- Mike keeps on hustling even when he’s not on stage: By day, he’s a construction worker who dreams of launching a custom furniture business and building a life that doesn’t involve stripping or offering himself up to audiences of hungry housewives, sex-crazed sorority girls and prowling cougars.
But you do not have to fall into one of those categories to have fun with “Magic Mike,” thanks to Reid Carolin’s jaunty screenplay, Steven Soderbergh’s stylish direction and several compelling performances that make this much more than “Flashdance 2012.” While the show at Club Xquisite is strictly what-you-see-is-what-you-get, there’s unexpected substance beneath the movie’s slightly grimy glamor. Although much of that may come from the film being rooted in Tatum’s personal experiences as an exotic dancer a decade ago (he really did take his passion and make it happen, as “Flashdance” urged us all to do), let’s give Soderbergh some well-deserved credit, too: The man doesn’t churn out garbage.
Funny, frank and smarter than you’d think, “Mike” moves to an unusual rhythm that’s reminiscent of the early-1970s work of directors like Alan J. Pakula (“Klute”) and Francis Ford Coppola (“The Conversation”). Scene after scene reveals unexpected spontaneity, as if the actors were improvising instead of reciting dialogue. That brings out the best in Tatum — who is having a terrific year with this, “21 Jump Street” and “The Vow” — and Alex Pettyfer, who plays Alex, the 19-year-old newcomer at Xquisite; the movie is heavily dependent on Pettyfer and Tatum creating a believable bond, and the actors deliver.
So does McConaughey, who is always at his most effective when he allows a bit of maliciousness or amorality to color his characters. As the outwardly laid-back Dallas, McConaughey confidently walks the tightrope between Mr. Nice Guy and a smiling snake in the grass. He’s happily ensconced in his own zone of zaniness.
Dallas and Mike operate along the lines of Fagin and the Artful Dodger, recruiting fresh talent like Alex (“We could use some more youth on the team,” Dallas reminds Mike) and showing them the sunny side of Sleazyville, which, in this case, involves abundant liquor, lots of cash and scores of opportunities to score one thing or another. To say that Alex, a college dropout with grand ambitions and meager job prospects, is not exactly worldly wise is an understatement. “Dude, this has no back!” he complains to Mike when they go “costume shopping.” “Yeah,” Mike patiently explains. “It’s a thong.”
After Alex’s first solo dance — to “Like a Virgin,” naturally — Dallas reprimands him for his shoddy showmanship. “You never kiss a girl: That’s Performance 101!” Dallas rages. (So let’s say there are actually three rules at Club Xquisite.)
Alex’s sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), has more brainpower than her brother, not to mention a clearer view of where his newfound career might be taking him. She’s cordial but cautious around Mike, appealing to him to keep an eye on Alex and showing little faith that he’ll keep his promises to her. It’s a role that could have been dully decorative, but Horn’s understated, direct approach makes it credible. Even so, she doesn’t always register against Tatum and Pettyfer; it would be interesting to see what kind of shift there would have been in the movie’s chemistry if Brooke had been played by someone with the eagerness of the young Debra Winger or the unpredictability of a Greta Gerwig or Parker Posey.
The more intriguing female character is the chic but unbalanced Joanna, played with an effective edginess by Olivia Munn of “The Daily Show.” Joanna, like Lauren Bacall’s memorably messed-up dilettante in “Young Man With a Horn,” uses her position as a psychology student doing “research” as an excuse to indulge in plenty of crazy nights and awful morning-afters. She makes herself available to Mike, although she’s equally inclined to seduce Mike’s admirers. One can only imagine the opening line of Joanna’s thesis: “In the post-‘Sex and the City’ society, it is now chic to be slutty.”
Soderbergh shoots much of the film through a slightly hazy filter that makes the Florida locations look the way they would if you were viewing them through cheap sunglasses. It's a clever technique to use in a film that revolves around people who are either unable or unwilling to connect to their world. In Club Xquisite, the men dress up in ridiculous costumes, pretending to be Tarzan, life-size Ken dolls, hot-blooded doctors or macho stereotypes that might have been inspired by the Village People. They take off their clothes and sometimes sleep with the customers, but they remain inside their own emotional cocoons. These days, the movie says, it's much easier to be naked and to sell your sensuality than it is to truly show the world who you are.
Soderbergh has also decked the movie out in a mocking red, white and blue motif that gives several moments a strong satiric bite, most notably a patriotic parade/dance in which the changes in lighting seem to make McConaughey’s eyes flicker with an almost maniacal lustiness.
It's an electrifying combination of sexiness and substance. It's also quintessentially Soderbergh. This is the same director who burst onto the scene with "sex, lies and videotape," which took much of its audience by surprise when it turned out to be a mostly low-key psychological study instead of the raunchy romp the title seemed to promise. "Magic Mike" works along similar lines, luring us in with beefcake and then giving us something to think about as a bonus. Like the dancers at Club Xquisite, Soderbergh keeps his act together, and a movie that could easily have been trashy turns out to be kind of terrific instead.