Florida, no matter how old you are, is where you go to feel younger, whether it's retirees recreating summer camp with long days full of games or twenty-somethings reliving the days of spring break with all-nighters at the club. With no seasons and acres of startlingly identical architecture, Florida-- or more specifically Tampa, the setting of Magic Mike-- is a place where the good life is also a holding pattern, where you start doing one thing that feels great and suddenly find yourself there 10 years later, 30 years old and stripping for hordes of women who all, alarmingly, start looking the same.
That's the situation, at least, for the titular Mike (Channing Tatum), a hunky guy who strips for the money but keeps up with a number of side businesses, like car detailing or construction, that he plans to one day add up and make him rich. Like The Wire's Stringer Bell, he's neck-deep in his industry but thinks he can see past it, harboring dreams of building custom furniture while also negotiating with the club's owner Dallas (a marvelously slimy Matthew McConaughey) for equity in a planned expansion to Miami. Mike's wearing the kind of blinders you need when your life just is meeting women in clubs, convincing them to come see you strip, and bedding them, but a chance encounter with 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer), whom Mike sets up with a job at the club, starts to change how Mike sees his long-delayed plans for the future.
You can probably tell by now that Magic Mike isn't exactly the glitter-caked bachelorette party romp promised in the trailers, at least not entirely. But what's probably most impressive about the work Steven Soderbergh does, directing from Reid Carolin's script, is that it's got the glitz and the heavy character study, without sacrificing either. The stripping scenes, in which Tatum and Pettyfer are joined onstage by the likes of Matthew Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, Joe Manganiello and Kevin Nash (hunks, all of 'em), are a genuine blast, with sharp choreography and elaborate costumes better than any real-life strip club I've seen. All of the guys are at their best onstage, and Soderbergh gives us their elation-- and all the promised male flesh-- while making every dance part of the story, and a step on Mike's road to figuring out how to make a change.
Tatum, who worked briefly as a male stripper and has retained every bit of the dance skills he had for his breakout role in Step Up, has never been better suited to a part, and his naturalistic, easy charm suffuses every frame of the movie, so that when Magic Mike becomes more of a character study in its second half, it remains gripping. The other guys at the club all make their impact as essentially background players-- and McConaughey, quite seriously, is Oscar-worthy with his oily performance-- but though Pettyfer is leagues better than he was in something like I Am Number Four, he's essentially overrun by Tatum's boundless appeal. That goes double for Cody Horn as Brooke, Adam's sister and Mike's love interest, whose sourpuss attitude is meant to serve as the "normal" contrast to Mike's high-flying world. She's the kind of untrained actor Soderbergh frequently hires (think Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience), but Horn is a charisma-free flatline in a movie with so many other interesting people to watch-- it's hard not to think of 100 other actresses who could have matched Tatum's down-home appeal with actual talent.
Shot by Soderbergh, serving as his own cinematographer, through a dingy yellow filter that makes everything feel like it's been left in the sun too long, Magic Mike is about dreams that curdle and get deferred, about how you need more money than what's stuffed in a G-string to make it in this world, but how those $1 bills can make it easier to wait-- for a little while, at least. It's also about Channing Tatum being a crazy good dancer, about how fun it would be to party all day on a sandbar, and how a male stripper really can make a woman's night with a good lap dance. These things might be mutually exclusive in the hands of another director, or disastrous when combined, but as usual, Soderbergh makes it look easy.