Back when he was a stripper, actor Channing Tatum learned a few things. One was that no man in a strip club would ever get away with what women get away with.
"They go insane," said director Steven Soderbergh. "Channing said it altered his view of women for a while."
Another part of the strip-club dynamic, said Soderbergh -- the director of "Magic Mike," which stars Tatum as a nightclub dancer with dreams and opens June 29 -- is that they don't go alone. "Men go alone," Soderbergh said. "Women go in packs."
Will they go in packs to "Magic Mike"? Soderbergh's $7-million, independently financed feature with an original script by Reid Carolin, "Magic Mike" stars Tatum as the hunky star of a decidedly déclassé Tampa, Fla., strip club owned by a guy named Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). As a story about a guy on the verge, it hits a lot of familiar marks: The 30-year-old Mike (Tatum) works various jobs; he wants his own business, as a furniture designer; he takes the younger, aimless Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing at the club, where he electrifies his audiences, and meanwhile longs for a woman (Olivia Munn) who's out of his league. If he wore a white suit -- or any clothes at all -- he could be Tony Manero, and Tampa would be Brooklyn to Miami's Manhattan and "Magic Mike" would be "Saturday Night Fever" -- another movie that defined a cultural moment.
"That's why I responded to the idea so strongly," Soderbergh said in New York. "I'm a big fan of that film and I thought that's what this could be, if executed properly. I watched it again in preparation for this, and I was surprised, again: I had forgotten how dark that film is. And there are things that happen that you'd never have a protagonist do today.
"I mean, we weren't trying to make a heavy movie," he said. "But I didn't want it to be disposable, either."
From "Gypsy" to "Burlesque" -- and all the other stripper and stripper-esque stories in between -- the promise of people taking their clothes off has provided a good reason to go to the movies. (Now, it often provides a good reason to stay home and watch the Internet.) However, with the exception of "The Full Monty," the strippers have rarely been men, the metaphorical weight of well-paid nudity having rested squarely on the shapely shoulders of women -- including, but not exclusively, Demi Moore ("Striptease"), Lindsay Lohan ("I Know Who Killed Me"), Marisa Tomei ("The Wrestler"), Jessica Alba ("Sin City"), Jennifer Beals ("Flashdance"), Salma Hayek ("From Dusk Till Dawn"), Elizabeth Berkley ("Showgirls") and a list that ranges from Oscar winner Natalie Portman ("Closer") to porn star Jenna Jameson ("Zombie Strippers").
The money shot
But as much as "Magic Mike" will titillate, with its buff male bods and lewd performances, it also makes a statement about the spiritual condition of America and its mortified economics. When Mike applies for a business loan -- with a massive down payment consisting of one-dollar bills -- he's rejected, despite his entrepreneurial hustle, by the same banking system that created the conditions under which he can't create a decent credit score.
"There's something Arthur Miller about that scene," Soderbergh said. "There's something great and sad about his attempt to create a legitimate business by walking in with a stack of ones.
"You can see their point," he said of the bank, "but he's right, too, when he says, 'You look at your screen and you think you know me.' The criteria we're employing these days is pretty weird."
"Magic Mike" is certainly not a treatise in economic theory. But neither is it a movie just about good-looking flesh. In fact, to a great extent, it's a movie about faces -- specifically those of Mike and Brooke (Cody Horn), the protective sister of the up-and-coming Adam, who has made Mike promise to look out for her troubled brother. In one of the more daring scenes, the routines at the club -- first by Adam, then by Mike -- are reflected via an extended shot of Brooke's face (as often happens, Soderbergh served as his own cinematographer, and provided the unique look of "Magic Mike").
"I thought it was an interesting setup for a scene," the director said, "a woman who's never been to a male strip club; first her brother dances, and then this guy who's supposed to be her brother's mentor, and she's having a series of complex reactions to what she's looking at. . . . I liked the idea of getting it all via her point of view and never turning away from that."
McConaughey does Dallas
Although he's not the centerpiece of the film, McConaughey will generate much of the conversation about it: His character, Dallas, is appalling, nervy and, in a way, pure McConaughey.
"He said yes over the phone, before we had a script," Soderbergh said. "I described Dallas -- ex-stripper and club owner with delusions of grandeur -- and he said, 'Yeah . . . I totally know who this guy is.' And he really did. He had this guy cold. It was kind of amazing to watch because on paper it wasn't nearly as electrifying as when you see it. He really jumped off a cliff.
"Without him," Soderbergh said, "the movie is unthinkable."
A hunk of roles for Channing Tatum
BY JOHN ANDERSON, Special to Newsday
Like his title character in "Magic Mike," actor Channing Tatum is biding his time, knowing the "hunk" label has an expiration date and clearly wanting to establish himself as something more than Hollywood's slab o'meat du jour. The results have been mixed: When the material's routine ("21 Jump Street"), or his role is essentially one of set decoration ("Public Enemies"), Tatum still gives audiences something to stare at. But when the material is good -- as in the following films -- the young actor has given every indication he can rise to it.
STOP-LOSS (2008) -- Director Kimberly Peirce's caustic drama about returning Iraqi war vets featured Tatum as Steve Shriver, who has inadvertently killed a group of civilians and struggles to adjust to life back in Texas. It was a supporting role, but in many ways Tatum did a splendid job representing the dilemma confronting a soldier misused by his government and tortured by his conscience.
THE SON OF NO ONE (2011) -- Adrift amid an esteemed cast of scenery chewers, including Al Pacino and Ray Liotta, Tatum had to provide the dramatic fulcrum of this cop-family feature directed by Dito Montiel (who gave Tatum one of his earliest roles in "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints"). As Jonathan White, Tatum played a rookie officer assigned to the same precinct where he grew up, and where a long-ago crime threatens to destroy his family and fledgling career.
THE EAGLE (2011) -- Another one Tatum had to more or less carry on his brawny shoulders. He played Marcus Aquila, a Roman officer deployed to an imperial outpost, where he hopes to discover what happened to his father -- the long-lost leader of the infamous Ninth Legion, whose 5,000 members marched into northern Britain and were never heard from again. Tatum doesn't quite capture the blind sense of Roman honor necessary to this scrappy drama by Kevin Macdonald ("Marley," "The Last King of Scotland"), but he does pretty well with the grief, regret and sense of personal mission.
SUPERCROSS (2005) -- A relative blast from the past, this noisy, inane feature about bike racing was a good warmup for Tatum, who got to play a sneering, privileged pain, rather than the faux-sensitive lad he's been in so many other movies.
FIGHTING (2009) -- You can't say he's not loyal: In yet another feature by Montiel, Tatum plays ex-wrestler Shawn MacArthur, who's persuaded by the oily Harvey Boarden (a terrific Terrence Howard) to get on the underground boxing circuit, and struggles to keep from ruining his handsome face. A movie of characters rather than logic, it again casts Tatum as a guy who looks like a movie star who's essentially living on the street. But nobody says this stuff has to make sense.