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

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."

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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