Directorial chameleon Steven Soderbergh hasn't given us the whimsical heart-warming Floridian reboot of The Full Monty that the previews suggest, but he hasn't quite given us the cynical Dantean underworld of Boogie Nights, either. Magic Mike falls somewhere in between, and what it most reminded me of was the latest rash of cinematic capitalist critiques that have flooded art house screens since the Great Recession has had time to reverberate artistically. Mike strips to supplement the other two jobs he holds down in order to one day fund his dream of being a furniture designer. He wants an artisanal and self-actualized life, liberated from the carnivalesque Xquisite dance club run by uber-capitalist M.C. Dallas (an oily-in-every-sense Matthew McConaughey). Dallas keeps promising more to Mike--more money, more power, more square footage in a club in Miami--as long as he keeps letting him sell Mike's body and reap the lion's share of the profits. This is how Mike gets fooled. He's been taught to look at the money, so he doesn't see that Dallas is making his dream disappear.
But it's not just Mike's body that sells. And this is an interesting element in the film. What Mike can do is seduce--not only onstage, but all the time--it's inherent to who he is as a character. Mike charms a young co-worker, Adam, into joining the posse of male dancers at Xquisite, and he breaks down Adam's sister Brooke's barriers through sheer open-heartedness, persistence, and likability. Being seductive is not the same thing as being sexy, or being handsome (if you look at Tatum's face, it's not classically beautiful), or being talented, and it's not just about sex. Channing Tatum is the best dancer of all the actors by a light year, but Mike is seductive. People are attracted to Mike, whether he's dancing or not, because he draws them in through an expertly modulated blend of showing and withholding. This is what makes him a successful stripper. It's also what makes him worthy of empathy from the audience. It's also what makes Magic Mike a good film.
There is an artistry to the way Mike dances and flirts, and it is filmed that way--the camera celebrates the physical beauty of Channing Tatum (along with Alex Pettyfer, Joe Manganiello, Adam Rodriguez and Kevin Nash). It's beautiful, but it's also inextricably linked to money. Watching Mike struggle to ascend out of the false promises of easy money (another powerful seducer), and watching Adam descend into them is compelling, heart-breaking, and moving. And all the pleasure comes from watching, whether the actors are stripping or not. It's hard not to wonder if Soderbergh, who famously toggles between big-budget studio pictures and micro-indies, isn't struggling to reconcile the aesthetically beautiful products he makes with the dollar bills we all plunk down to see them.