There’s just something about Channing Tatum. Clearly, he’s got that magic touch (why else would Paramount be reshooting “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” to add more Chan?), a certain je ne sais quoi that would inspire veteran auteur Steven Soderbergh to bring his early life story as a Florida stripper to the silver screen, while making the ultimate male stripper movie in the process. It just so happens to be a really good film too, one that’s about more than just shakin’ what the good Lord bestowed on Mr. Tatum and pals.
Despite what the marketing may have you believe, the film is a two-man show: Alex Pettyfer plays Adam, aka The Kid, Mike’s protégé and foil in this tale of money, work and excess. The Kid’s a recession-era Millennial just trying to make a buck, fuck and get fucked up. Maybe he has no lines in the trailers because that kind of thing won’t get butts in seats (as opposed to Tatum’s butt in various ladies’ seats). Mike runs into the down and out Kid at a roofing gig and gives him a ride home after his car breaks down. Mike seems to have it all, nice ride, a decent job, and The Kid latches onto him when he runs into Mike later that night in downtown Tampa, escaping dinner conversation about health insurance policy with his sister (Cody Horn) and her date. Mike’s his ticket to the booze and the girls, but it comes at a price when Mike brings him along to the XQuisite Male Dance Revue to help out and earn some scratch.
There ensues our introduction to the rest of the dancers: Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tarzan (WWE wrestler Kevin Nash in splendid flowing brunette locks), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and of course, our emcee, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Manganiello displays some refreshing humor uncharacteristic to his stoic “True Blood” werewolf, and even goes in for some “Austin Powers”-esque Swedish penis enlarger sight gags. After Tarzan is felled by a mighty dose of GHB, wouldn’t you know it, Mike pushes The Kid out on stage to strip to his skivvies, and thus, a star is born… or at least a cute dude willing to take his pants off and dry hump some willing ladies. Oh, and dry hump they do. They dance to “It’s Raining Men” in sparkly trench coats and umbrellas. There are all manner of routines involving soldiers, sailors, boxers, cowboys, paramedics, and Tarzan (duh), though they aren't going to win any awards for choreography, it's not really about the creative drive behind the dance, it's about the money, honey. But, Tatum dances his heart out and performs the best Dancing Alone to Pony number to ever grace a screen. He dances like he is trying to earn the Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Pelvic Thrusting. Newsflash: it’s won. He wins it. No one can match his rate of thrusts per minute.
It would seem that Soderbergh and Tatum are an odd couple, but Soderbergh has achieved a rare director/star symbiotic relationship with Tatum in this film—one where the director is able to fully distill the essence of his star and showcase his natural aura and charm in the very best light. The film is Tatum’s and he fills the screen with his easy smile and relaxed flirtation. He seems at home, at ease, probably because he’s playing a version of himself, but unlike other roles where he sometimes comes off as stiff (ahem) and tense. The focus on Tatum is to the detriment of the other male dancers in the XQuisite Male Dance Revue. The humor and group camaraderie showcased at the beginning of the film is unfortunately squandered to focus on the drama and deeper issues surrounding their line of work and the lifestyle that comes with it. Mike’s got dreams of starting his own business (custom found object furniture!), while The Kid just wants to enjoy his newfound disposable income. But, they forge a best friendship, helped in no small part by Mike’s flirtation with The Kid’s sister. While he gets deeper into the world of drugs, sex and money, Mike is trying to extricate himself, and it all turns into a big, complicated mess.
This is a movie that is, at its core, about money and industry and earning an honest living. In the script by Reid Carolin, you will be surprised by how many times you hear the word “equity” come out of the mouths of beefcakes; the only thing these guys ever talk about offstage is markets, investing, stocks, etc. Everything is driven by and leads back to money, Mike's trying to get a small business loan juxatposed with The Kid going in on a pack of ecstasy pills with their dealer DJ. The promise, allure and threat of sex permeate the film, but there are no real sex scenes. There are, however, bikinis stuffed to the brim with ones, Mike ironing his precious bills to save up, and Mike and Dallas constantly arguing over their shares in a planned Miami extension of the club. Economics are the throbbing core of this film, more than any thrusting pelvis of one Mr. Tatum, and because it has real issues behind the lighthearted and fun entertainment, it’s way more than just a night at the Thunder From Down Under.
As for Mr. McConaughey-- seasoned pro and emcee Dallas is the role he was born to play. That’s all there is to it. Of course he does his “alright, alright, alright” thing, but in his offstage moments, where he slips seamlessly between showman and businessman, is where his true genius shines. He is at once a playful good ol’ boy and threatening master manipulator. Oh, and his final performance is, simply, transcendent. As the co-lead, Alex Pettyfer demonstrates his chops. He’s the perfect flip side of the coin to noble, chiseled Mike, all skinny and scruffy, growing from naïve, confused kid to wheeler and dealer. It’s probably the more difficult performance than the natural extensions of the personas of Tatum and McConaughey, as charming as they may be. Pettyfer has no redeeming moment in this film; he remains a bumbling, selfish jerk, who stumbles on his fortunes and has no idea that he's betrayed the only people who've taken care of him in this whole situation.
And, we can’t forget the ladies (though it is a man’s, man’s, man’s world in this movie). Soderbergh attempts to flip the script of the traditional feminist text, showing how women objectify, use and discard these men. Olivia Munn’s role is slightly more than an extended cameo as a grad student getting her rocks off with Mike, and the same can be said for Riley Keough as a strung out paramour of The Kid. Cody Horn gives a strong supporting performance as Brooke, a fierce and protective sister to her brother, a tough cookie who can’t help but be drawn in by Mike’s magic, despite its lurid nature. Horn and Tatum have a winning chemistry together, but this is not a romantic comedy-- instead it's more of a Chippendales Butch and Sundance gone sour.
Soderbergh has delivered an entertaining and expertly paced film about male stripping that is about more than just stripping, dealing with some universal issues like work and age and money and sex. Stylistically, the film has a hazy yellow sheen that hangs over every frame, emphasizing the lens flare of twinkling lights, neon signs, and the glistening ocean of Florida, though it's not very pretty. There are some moments where he plays with primary color lighting during some heavily stylized, subjective ecstasy-feuled romps that are clever and beautifully shot. Yet, he has made a very mainstream film, a hit right to the sweet spot. But, it’s full of heart, and it seems likely that audiences will fall under Mike’s spell too. Just try and resist. [B+]