Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike” brings to mind the old joke about non-dairy creamer — we know what it isn’t, but what is it? If you’re expecting a sexy and voyeuristic peek into the world of muscular dancers taking off their clothes for roomfuls of rowdy women (i.e., the movie that the ads and trailers are selling), you’ll be disappointed at how lackluster and, ultimately, repetitive the stripping sequences are.
If Soderbergh wanted to use male stripping merely as a catchy hook on which to hang an interesting story or a captivating character study, well, the script by first-timer Reid Carolin provides a slight, familiar story alongside characters who aren’t all that interesting. And while “Magic Mike” tries to use the business of sexual fantasy to make a point about the depressed state of the new millennial economy, Soderbergh already covered that ground to much better effect in “The Girlfriend Experience.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about “Magic Mike” is the way that it hews, intentionally or unintentionally, to the plot of a previous male-stripper epic, the 1981 TV movie “For Ladies Only,” which featured Gregory Harrison as a would-be Serious Actor who instead becomes Manhattan’s hottest male exotic dancer while his best pal (played by a pre-“Beastmaster” Marc Singer) sinks into drug addiction.
Channing Tatum (on whose life experience this film is loosely based) stars as Mike, who thinks of himself as an entrepreneur — his gigs include roofing, furniture design and car detailing — but who makes a living shaking his groove thing every night for Tampa’s most pent-up females. On a construction job, he meets young college dropout Adam (Alex Pettyfer) and figures “The Kid” (as Alex is known for the rest of the movie) would make a better stripper than roofer.
The Kid stumbles through an impromptu baptism by fire at the strip club (as Harrison’s character did) before getting hooked on pills (as Singer’s character did), while Mike strains to become anything that is Not a Stripper (as Harrison’s character did). Replace the questionable early-’80s fashions with zeitgeist-y concerns about the recession, and you’ve pretty much got the same movie.
Soderbergh doesn’t shoot the stripping sequences as though he were directing a musical; it would be tempting to say that he’s going for a documentarian’s approach, but an actual recent doc about exotic dancing -- Frederick Wiseman’s “Crazy Horse” -- offers up numbers that are much more elaborate and significantly sexier. The naughty bits of “Magic Mike” are, for the most part, dull, and not in a way that feels like a directorial choice.
Outside of the club, Soderbergh mutes the Florida sunshine to a grimy overcast-ness, part of an overall strategy to give the movie a more 1970s feel. (Said strategy includes everything from organically unstructured Altman-esque scenes, complete with overlapping background dialogue, to the use of the vintage, Saul Bass–designed Warner Bros. “W” logo that was retired 20 or so years ago.) But even if we don’t talk about them much, there were bad movies in the ’70s, too.
Both Tatum and Matthew McConaughey (as the strip club’s figuratively and literally oily manager) continue their streak of movies in which they prove that they’re actors and not just himbos, and they’re matched by Cody Horn as Adam’s concerned sister. Horn brings a young-Diane-Lane vibe to the proceedings, and her scenes with Tatum bring “Magic Mike” its only moments of feeling like a genuinely compelling story about recognizable human beings.
Pettyfer doesn’t have it in him to inject any life into the non-character he’s playing, and Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello have so little dialogue that they barely register at all. (Manganiello plays a dancer known as “Big Dick Rich,” and that one detail is about as much as we ever learn about him.)
Riddled with show-biz clichés, stick-figure studs and re-heated ideas, “Magic Mike” thrusts its junk in your face despite having a very empty G-string.