Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, set within the world of Tampa’s clubs, beach bars and strip joints, would pair nicely with his 2009 The Girlfriend Experience, about a high-class female escort based in New York City. Like that film, Magic Mike is a clever and somewhat wry exposé of the material circumstances that underwrite the selling of sexual fantasies. Both films are about sex work, with a heavy emphasis on work—they’re fundamentally films about money, and about the difficulty in separating one’s jobs from one’s personal relationships, especially when both the jobs and the relationships involve a lot of hands-on time with members of the opposite sex.
Magic Mike is a much warmer, lighter film than the chilly Girlfriend Experience, which, released in the wake of the 2008 recession, packed a more brutal punch. Soderbergh presents male stripping as not so much degrading as silly and immature, a childish thing to be put away when one is ready to grow up and assume adult responsibility. As smart as it often is, this is one of Soderbergh’s least politically interesting films—it’s basically a story of belated coming-of-age in which our title character, played by beefcake-of-the-month Channing Tatum, must decide whether he wants to go on living the life of a glorified frat boy or settle down into “real” relationships and “real” work. (He has aspirations of making a career designing and selling hand-crafted furniture.) Magic Mike presents the world of male stripping as a decadent homosocial community of overgrown boys from which real men must inevitably make a break. The film’s pleasure principle is embodied by the young up-and-comer The Kid (Alex Pettyfer), who—in a plot turn that seems to have been borrowed from 42nd Street—gets his big break on-stage when one of the club’s regulars can’t go on; after becoming a star, The Kid begins to recklessly indulge his taste for sex, drugs, and toys.
In spite of its decisively moralistic plot, Soderbergh doesn’t belabor any points here, and there’s an enjoyably breezy, unstrained feel to the whole thing. But it also doesn’t add up to much, either. This is the second of three films Soderbergh plans to make with Tatum, and I don’t see what Soderbergh sees in him—he has roughly as much charm as a really attractive rock. (Better is Matthew McConaughey as the club’s supremely, um, cocky master of ceremonies.) Soderbergh is at his best here when he turns a critical gaze on the world of stripping, looking at it from just enough distance that it becomes defamiliarized and fascinating in its very absurdity and strangeness. There’s a very good sequence in which The Kid’s sister (Cody Horn) watches Mike’s act from the back of the club (dressed like a thug, he gyrates to Genuwine's "My Pony"), and Soderbergh invites us to gaze at him through her eyes. In moments like this one, we’re made to see the production of sexual fantasy as a rivetingly bizarre spectacle.