A mellow, low-slung charm propels "Magic Mike," Steven Soderbergh's film starring Channing Tatum as a male stripper that is partly based on Tatum's real-life experience. What might have been a hysterically pitched version of "Fifty Shades of Grey" or a gritty expose of a seamy underworld instead is gratifyingly underplayed. It's a nicely balanced blend of comedy, drama and athletic dancing that plies its trade with winking, unforced self-assurance.
In the parlance of the trade: "Magic Mike" makes it rain but never looks like it's working hard for the money.
Tatum plays the title character, now in his 30s, who for years has been a headline act at a Tampa strip club called Xquisite but who is ready to strike out on his own in a custom-furniture business. When Mike meets a 19-year-old college dropout named Adam (Alex Pettyfer), Mike takes the young man under his wing and introduces him to the easy money, flowing booze and nonstop booty calls of his lifestyle. Soon Adam - nicknamed "The Kid" by Xquisite's seedy owner Dallas (played with delicious, drawling oiliness by Matthew McConaughey) - is bumping, vamping and fondling his nether regions with the rest of Mike's posse, a collection of mild-mannered guys who are as comfortable with pancake makeup and waxing as they are with the pumps they use to enhance their natural gifts.
Soderbergh films those backstage rituals and banter with glancing, offhand understatement, a style that gives "Magic Mike" a great deal of its appeal. Made in the lighthearted, unfussy vein of Soderbergh's "Ocean's" movies and "Haywire," this midsummer programmer has less in common with such antecedents as "Striptease" and "Boogie Nights" than "Lifeguard," a little-known 1976 gem in which Sam Elliott played an aging beach bum contemplating his future (and looking mighty fine doing it).
"Magic Mike," which was written by Tatum's producing partner Reid Carolin, is a lightweight that, like its protagonists, is only out for a good time. It tells a simple story - some might say classic, some might say hackneyed - of a young man finding himself, an older mentor reconsidering his life and discovering love, and the enduring power of a buff-and-bronzed hottie gyrating in a spangled codpiece. No moralizing, no deeper meanings - just a good, old-fashioned cinematic hen party, like "Mamma Mia!" with six-pack abs and the flash of a well-dimpled tush.
The screaming, dollar-bill-waving women who comprise Mike's devoted audience are never treated with contempt or scorn in "Magic Mike" (unless you count a brief scene of a dancer putting his back out after lifting a voluptuous audience member), nor are the sleazy but essentially decent dudes he bro's-out with. And Mike himself - as portrayed in a wonderfully playful, spontaneous performance by Tatum - proves a not just watchable but worthy central character, whether he's pursuing Adam's sister Brooke (newcomer Cody Horn in a refreshingly sober, naturalistic turn) or dropping trou on stage.
Not surprisingly, those sequences are the standout scenes in "Magic Mike," when Tatum's dancing prowess comes to dazzling light in a series of athletic, sinuous moves ranging from pop-and-locks, slides and back flips to the more sexually evocative gestures of classic burlesque. Evincing the same brand of self-deprecating comedy that made his "21 Jump Street" performance such a good-natured surprise, Tatum here gently mocks his onetime career and honors it by giving it everything he's got - which is quite a bit, it turns out. Tatum's own understanding of discipline, focus and entertainment value infuses an otherwise campy enterprise with improbable nobility.
"Magic Mike" may not work hard for the money, but its star does, and his diligence pays off in ways that even the most generous G-string can't contain.