The distance between the movie sold by a trailer and the one you end up seeing is often as wide as that between the appetizing burger in the fast-food ad and the heat-lamped puck of sadness delivered to your tray. But in the case of Steven Soderbergh's latest, that expectation mismatch works in reverse: The advertising might make this look like a flimsy excuse to put a bunch of hunky guys onscreen in equally flimsy thongs, but Magic Mike turns out to be more complicated than its slick, vapid rom-com trailers would indicate.
That might worry anyone who was sold on the idea of a big, dumb parade of sharply sculpted eye candy — a summer blockbuster without the usual spandex obscuring all the carefully toned abs and pecs. Never fear: If you came for a feast of flesh, you'll get more than your money's worth — within the first few minutes, even.
But Soderbergh is a filmmaker who keeps one foot firmly planted on each side of the art-vs.-entertainment divide. He can turn on a dime from the perfect pop moviemaking of Ocean's 11 to the self-conscious experimentation of Bubble, and it appears that this latter portion of his career — he's said he'll be retiring soon — is devoted to blending those two inclinations. So much as with Haywire earlier this year, Magic Mike finds the director pulling at the threads of genre conventions to see what's revealed in the unraveling.
Channing Tatum plays the titular Mike, a charismatic, entrepreneurial 30-year-old with a roofing business, a car-detailing business and dreams of a custom-furniture business. He also spends his weekend nights performing in an all-male dance revue that caters to sorority girls, bachelorette parties and bored housewives, run by an owner (Matthew McConaughey, channeling a subtle, sometimes frightening darkness) so dripping with sleaze that if he was still dancing himself, he probably wouldn't even need to oil his body down.
Mike takes Adam — a shy young screw-up he meets at a construction job — under his wing, shaping him into a dancer in his own image, much to the consternation of Adam's sister Brooke (Cody Horn), who inevitably becomes the one girl Mike can't immediately charm into bed. She's a symbol for the something more Mike wants out of life, the something that's always frustratingly out of reach.
That's the generic setup, but Soderbergh keeps things fresh by concentrating on who these characters are, rather than simply using the plot as an excuse for the dance sequences. That means a lot of slowly developing conversations, during which the director utilizes the sort of long takes that don't allow bad actors to hide behind editing.
That's significant because his lead is an actor who for much of the last six years has been one of the most reliably lifeless screen presences in Hollywood. Yet here Tatum reveals a comfort in front of the camera like nothing he's ever displayed before. We knew he could handle the physical demands — he began his career as a stripper himself, and became a star thanks to his footwork in 2006's Step Up. But as a man desperate to realize dreams of something more fulfilling than the increasingly empty existence the club provides, Tatum sells each and every disappointment that comes down the line.
Less convincing is Horn as Brooke, whose monotone detachment plays like a failed attempt at an uptight emotional remove; it comes off more like unrehearsed disinterest.
That doesn't hurt the film too much, though, since that love story is less interesting to Soderbergh than the black hole of drugs and dashed dreams that is the club. The money and the networking opportunities of the place look to Mike like his ticket to the next step in his life, with the partying and the women a nice side benefit.
But it's actually nothing but a mirage on quicksand, and the film's portrait of self-delusion and gradual awakening makes for compelling viewing, even if it's eventually somewhat undercut by a pop-romance ending that seems undeservedly tidy.
Soderbergh may bow to the entertainer side of his split filmmaking personality in that moment — but then again, if you can't send your audience home with a smile in a film that features a group of half-naked dudes using umbrellas as blatant phallic symbols during a performance of "It's Raining Men," you're probably doing something wrong.