'Magic Mike': Male Strippers Reveal the Naked Truth About the Recession

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Steven Soderbergh's latest is a fun but surprisingly deep portrayal of people in desperate situations.

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Warner Bros.

The trailer didn't lie: Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh's male-stripper movie based on the real-life experiences of his star, Channing Tatum, is a perfect film for bachelorette parties. Tatum as a Tampa stripper, Alex Pettyfer as the young man he recruits to join his crew, Matthew McConaughey as a club-owner, and Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello as members of their ensemble, are better on the eyes than any real-life All-Male Revue.

But for all the fun as it's possible to have with Magic Mike, the movie has a serious subject: the recession. These strippers are marginally employed men trying to move up the economic ladder in a state with the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country, and their struggles show how financial need leads people to deceive each another—and, more importantly, themselves.

Unlike most stripper movies, this is a world where the nastiness happens off-stage, not on it.

The movie's main striver is Mike (Tatum), who dreams of making custom furniture for a living, but strips and takes under-the-table jobs in construction to keep adding to a modest $13,000 stash he hopes to use to start his business. When he pulls out of his driveway in a van stenciled with the logo of the detailing company he ostensibly operates, he's actually headed for a job roofing McMansions, with a foreman who tells him, "I can't have fucking union guys around here." They'd want to work for more than $10 an hour and a Pepsi from a communal cooler a day.

At the work site, Mike meets Adam (Pettyfer), whose forfeited football scholarship ended his chance at college. He's trying aimlessly to break into construction, or cell phone sales, or anything that will keep his conscientious sister Brooke (a lovely Cody Horn) from nagging him. Brooke's boyfriend, lording his importance as an insurance adjuster over his date and her brother, brags of his toughness with his clients: "I just have to be the guy who has to tell them they don't get to rebuild their houses," with a strange kind of pride—he's the guy enforcing an end to the American dream. When Mike takes Adam for a night out on Tampa's club scene and tells him that he needs to lose the tennis shoes he wore to the construction site, Adam explains, "These are the only shoes I have." That small glimpse of pitifulness convinces Mike to "adopt" Adam. He takes him to a bar to see how girls respond, then throws him on the stage at the strip club where he works. Adam instantly becomes a star.

Mike and his friends have a vague idea of what economic success looks like. Dallas, the club-owner played by McConaughey, dreams of having children whom he can force to watch Jim Cramer's Mad Money. Mike dons glasses for a meeting with a bank officer about a small-business loan. But they're naive about the obstacles that face them. When the loan officer tells Mike his credit score is unacceptably low, he pushes a pile of cash at her, asking "Does this look distressed?" And as Tatum's considerable charm falters, he slips into one of the many new modes he's shown this year in movies from The Vow to 21 Jump Street, telling her bitterly, "I read the papers. The only thing that's distressed is y'all."

Stripping turns out to be an unreliable means to success. When Adam, giddy from his first night on stage, starts handing money to Dallas as part of his cut, Dallas tells him magnanimously, "Every man keeps every dollar he makes on that stage. Plus the 50 that I owe you." But later in the movie, when Mike finds out that Dallas has given Adam a partnership in a new club he plans to open in Miami—and slashed the share Mike was promised—Dallas is quick to remind Mike of the limits to his value. "You are worth the cash you pry out of their purses, and you know that better than anyone," Dallas says.

Unlike most stripper movies, this is a world where the nastiness happens off-stage, not on it. No female customers push too far or ask too much of the men they've come to admire. Instead, they're amazed by their own daring in touching the men at all. And the stripping sequences are gorgeously choreographed, even as Soderbergh keeps cutting away from the creative costumes and beautiful men's bodies to reveal the small-time tackiness of the club they perform in. For the first, happy half of the movie, this sun-bleached Tampa looks like a perfect place to while away some time, and stripping seems like a dream. "I have money," Adam tells Mike. "I can fuck who I want to fuck. I have freedom, thanks to you, man."

But the movie gains subtle depth when Mike begins questioning whether stripping is the transitional enterprise he's always told himself it is, and whether it can actually get him where he wants to go. Dallas cuts Mike's equity percentage in the new club. Joanna (a surprisingly good Olivia Munn), an occasional lover of Mike's who we later find out met him while doing research towards her psychology degree, loses interest as Mike turns introspective. "You don't need to talk," she tells him. "Just look pretty."

And Mike finds himself drawn to Brooke, a quietly moral (though never prudish) woman repelled by Mike's self-deception more than his profession, even as she tells him that when Adam told her he was stripping, "I was hoping this was a joke." He confesses, "It is pretty funny." Their flirtation follows a pattern: Brooke voicing skepticism of Mike's plans or objections to Mike and Adam's stripping, and Mike making light of her concerns. When she asks him to remember the people who live their lives during the day, Mike jokes, "So you're not a vampire? This isn't going to work at all."

But when tragedy strikes them, Mike has no real defense. Brooke eviscerates his delusions, shouting at him, "I see you. I fucking see you." He's wearing baggy sweatpants instead of a thong, and in that moment he's never been more naked.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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