Magic Mike (***½)

If Robert Altman had chosen to make a film about the lives of male strippers, the end result might have resembled ‘Magic Mike’, a shockingly great flick that’s far better than it probably has any right to be (I’ll talk more about the Altman connection in a bit). A ton of credit goes to filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who turns in his best film in quite some time. The movie is funny and full of life, but also knows when to get dark, resulting in a rather complete cinematic experience. I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect to like this film, considering my issues with Channing Tatum and the distinct feeling that the thing just wasn’t aimed at me whatsoever, but boy was I wrong. Tatum gives one of his best performances (though I won’t say that’s amazing praise…but he’s very good here, I swear) as part of this ensemble cast, and the script that he was the inspiration for and that Reid Carolin penned is surprisingly insightful. I won’t call this an Oscar player right now, but it’s likely going to do fantastic business when it opens on Friday, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the screenplay manages to sneak into a few precursors here and there. This is one of the biggest surprises of the year for me.

Inspired in a small way by the early days that Channing Tatum spent as a male stripper, the film follows the stories of Magic Mike (Tatum) a veteran dancer and Adam/The Kid (Alex Pettyfer) that he takes under his wing. Mike is the most popular part of the act that Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) hosts at a club in Tampa, but he’s as much an entrepreneur as anything, running about a half dozen small businesses in the hope of one day being able to hang up the thong and follow his dream of building custom furniture. Alex is an aimless 19 year old who meets Mike working on a roofing job and all but falls into the job stripping. Dallas and Mike see something in Adam, and soon he’s a part of the team, along with the appropriately named Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tarzan (former pro wrestler Kevin Nash), and Tito (Adam Rodriguez). Dallas is planning a move to Miami for the crew, with the promise of even more exposure and money. Mike always has one eye on the future while partying and living up his life so this isn’t a thrill to him, but Adam dives in headfirst in just about every single way, leading to some trouble for the kid. At the same time, Mike has his eyes on Adam’s straight-laced sister Brooke (Cody Horn). A romance is possible, but will his lifestyle get in the way?

Channing Tatum delivers his first successful leading role here in my eyes. He’s been solid before (notably in ’21 Jump Street’, ‘A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints’, and ‘Stop-Loss’), and so far has worked well with Steven Soderbergh, but up until now he’s always had his success in supporting turns or at least co-leads where he could share the spotlight. Here, he’s front and center, and is up to the task. Part of this is due to him being a good fit for his character, but for the first time he actually brings something valuable to a part (besides some admittedly amazing dancing skills). Alex Pettyfer is less success in the other big part, overplaying his extremes too much for my taste. He’s hardly bad, and at times seems to be channeling Tom Cruise, but he’s not memorable at all. Matthew McConaughey relishes his supporting part and play it perfectly, while the likes of Joe Maganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, and Adam Rodriguez do their parts well, if without too much flash. The other impressive performance belongs to Cody Horn, who takes a pretty standard part and fleshes it out nicely. The rest of the cast includes Olivia Munn as a friend with benefits for Mike, Gabriel Iglesias as the club’s DJ who gets Adam in his first bit of trouble, and Riley Keough as the other part of that toxic combination. Go figure…the highlight of the cast is Channing Tatum.

When Steven Soderbergh announced that he’d be directing this project, I was rather skeptical. He’s supposedly retiring soon and he’s wasting precious time on a stripping flick? Well, inexplicably this material is a perfect fit for him. He mixes his own style with the sensibilities of Robert Altman (notably a floating camera observing conversations almost in secret), resulting in a stylish but never overly flashy production. It just manages to fit the environment (the backstage scenes are a highlight and also are pure Altman). Soderbergh also proves adept at dance choreography, something I didn’t know he had in him. He is again shooting the film himself under the pseudonym of “Peter Andrews” and cutting the flick as “Mary Ann Bernard”, and for my money this is one of his 5 best films to date, so I’m all for that. The script by Reid Carolin (who also helped produce the flick with Channing Tatum and has a small supporting part as well) has a real ear for what these characters might be saying and doing (they’re obsessed with finance). The plot sometimes is a bit on the standard side and the evolution of the characters are really nothing that you haven’t seen before, but it’s the environment that sets this apart (along with some real odd touches, one of which includes a penis pump…you’ll see). It really is impressive work all around.

‘Magic Mike’ is hardly a chick flick, and instead a real offbeat character study that exceeds all of your expectations. Honestly, the less you think that you’ll like this movie, the more you’ll likely wind up digging it. There are a lot of laughs, some interesting ideas, and a lot of fun to be had with this film. I’d be shocked if this isn’t a big hit this weekend when it hits theaters, as it can appeal to more than one group without trouble. Fueled by a surprisingly strong performance by Channing Tatum, this is a real winner and one of my 10 favorite films of 2012 so far…can you believe it?

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!