Directed by pretty much anyone besides Steven Soderbergh, Magic Mike might have been virtually unwatchable. But it's entertaining almost entirely thanks to what its director adds to the formula.
Which is fairly crucial, because formula doesn't get much more formulaic than this tale apparently inspired by actor Channing Tatum's own experiences as a nightclub stripper. He stars here as Mike, who spends his nights grinding in a Tampa club called Xquisite, and his days grinding away at odd jobs so he can start a custom furniture business. On one of those jobs he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a 19-year-old college dropout. Soon Mike is introducing Adam to the world of dry-humping for crumpled dollar bills, while Mike anticipates the opening of a new club in Miami in which the club's owner (Matthew McConaughey) has promised him a stake.
The script is a mash-up of everything from All About Eve to Boogie Nights, with a generous dose of Showgirls, Cocktail and Coyote Ugly stirred into the mix. It's the kind of story where the wide-eyed protégé is literally referred to as "The Kid," and where his raw potential is instantly spotted by someone who says, "You've got something, Kid." And as soon as the innocent lad takes the first pill that's offered to him - with a hurricane blowing in the background, no less - you know that things are about to spiral out of control.
Yet Magic Mike offers a buzz that feels fresh - and that's what Soderbergh contributes. His facility with finding a casual vibe for his actors leads to the kind of naturalism that has always elevated his genre films like Out of Sight and Ocean's Eleven. He guides a loose, frisky performance by Tatum, and one from McConaughey that fully embraces his narcissistic image. Soderbergh frames individual shots with a casual brilliance that forces you to take a moment to realize what you're seeing. Simply by refusing to phone it in, Soderbergh makes Magic Mike worth holding our attention.
The script seems to be trying for something slightly ambitious by grafting its gutter-to-glory arc onto a look at Great Recession-era economics. It seems absurd, though, not to acknowledge that Magic Mike could exist primarily as glossy, socially acceptable porn for girls. The fact that it doesn't feel like merely a cookie-cutter creation spiced up with ass-less chaps is a result of a director with a sense for making any story singularly his own.