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$ex $ells; Soderbergh brings sexy back to film

Steven Soderbergh likes to make movies about sex. But then, why wouldn't he? It's an awfully good way to get -- and keep -- people's attention.

It's what he did back in 1989 in the first movie where we came to know him -- "Sex, Lies and Videotape," an acutely observant comedy about an impotent filmmaker who raises unholy hell by filming women talking with shocking intimacy about their sex lives.

He won the grand prize at Cannes for that baby. A guy could find that encouraging, yes?

One Soderbergh movie in which nothing special justified the titillating title was called "Full Frontal." Another one -- about the life and times and a Manhattan call girl -- was called "The Girlfriend Experience" and starred porn star Sasha Grey.

That, no doubt, is the one Channing Tatum remembered when he first bent Soderbergh's ear with his long-term efforts to get a film made of his early life as a young male stripper named Chan Crawford in Tampa.

Smart kid, that Tatum. Soderbergh knew it. If ever there was a movie that could score big with women on Girls' Night Out -- and with gays on Gays' Night Out -- it's a movie about a bunch of artfully lit male strippers bumping and grinding and shoving abs and pecs and pelvises into the faces and other parts of whooping, applauding and guffawing women.

That movie is "Magic Mike." And since Tatum and Soderbergh are no fools in the box office department, there's plenty of male anatomy making both intimate contact in "Magic Mike" and less intimate contact (including the full frontal silhouette of a dancer in the male strip club's troupe whose nickname refers to his oversized contribution to the ensemble).

But Soderbergh is too mature and too good a filmmaker to be making an upscale beefcake movie that is nothing but an upscale beefcake movie.

So what you've got here is a funny and rather brilliantly filmed (digitally by Soderbergh acting as his own cinematographer under the name Peter Andrews) tale of one underside of exhibitionism for fun and profit. Needless to say, it all turns ugly and dangerous, when drugs enter the picture.

The screenwriter is Reid Carolin who is a friend of Tatum's and the producer of Tatum's high school reunion film "10 Years," but is also the writer of a film called "Earth Made of Glass," a documentary about the aftermath of Rwandan genocide.

Just as "Boogie Nights" -- a much better movie to be sure -- was about innocence that couldn't help playing with fire, "Magic Mike" is about the veteran stripper named Mike who shows a muscular young kid named Adam the ropes in the pelvic thrust trade and protects him until the kid goes into the Ecstasy business and learns how little ecstasy (small E) is possessed by those in the business of moving illegal drugs in massive quantities.

Mike (Tatum) had promised to Adam's sister that he'd protect the kid, but a rule of thumb in life is that there's nothing harder than protecting really stupid kids from the consequences of their own stupidity.

And that's, if you ask me, the most interesting thing of all about "Magic Mike," the good and well-advertised movie with the oh-so-canny advertising campaign.

Playing Adam's ever-watchful sister is an extraordinarily lovely young woman named Cody Horn, who just happens to be the daughter of Alan F. Horn, president and COO of Warner Brothers.

If you think then that Horn's full frontal self can be found amid all the excess of uncovered female flesh adorning the screen before "Magic Mike" hangs up its thong, forget it. You can see her wearing short shorts and a decorous Tampa bikini (when in Rome), but there's no way that Soderbergh is going to play fast and loose with Daddy's little girl on screen when Daddy is a studio boss.

Instead, he gives her face the kind of adoring "Do I Recognize Beauty or What?" treatment that he gave Natasha McElhone's face in the otherwise misguided American version of Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris."

Soderbergh is pretty careful all the way through here considering that the movie is about a club where the smarmy owner/emcee (Matthew McConaughey) lays down the audience laws for his female customers -- including all the body contact prohibited by law -- and then observes "I think a see a lot of lawbreakers out there."

In a movie like "Magic Mike" -- full of epidermal display and the frequent consequences of life lived on show business' carnal fringe -- no cops are necessary when the director and the star are smart enough to rejoice in profitable display for the maddened crowd but to leave the nasty consequences in. At one point in "Magic Mike," Mike's most frequent after-hours hookup -- played by Olivia Munn -- wants to bolt after sex even though Mike wants her to stick around and talk. After all, she's an indentured psychologist. "You don't need to talk," she replies. "Just look pretty."

After enough evenings like that, a successful Hollywood actor in the beefcake trade might want to find a good director who'll let him talk a little and be good doing it.




3 stars (out of 4)    

STARRING: Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer    

DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh    

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes    

RATING: R for pervasive sex, graphic nudity, language    

THE LOWDOWN: Male stripper shows the ropes to an irresponsible 19-year- old.