Of all the questions I hoped to have answered by a movie this summer, the one that's been bothering me the most, for the longest time, is what on earth compelled Steven Soderbergh to direct Magic Mike. The parsimonious answer is that Channing Tatum told the director all about his life as a young stripper, and Soderbergh thought that it was an interesting story that deserved to be told, and he wanted to be the one to tell it; but I refuse to believe that. While there are certainly directors who make movies just because they offer an interesting story (Spielberg and Eastwood catapult to mind), Sodbergh is not among them; he hasn't made a movie just because it was a good story since Out of Sight, or Ocean's Eleven if we want to be generous: he makes structural exercises, with even his nominally "fun" movies investigating the way that movies and movie stars engender meaning. And this should have already been enough to set me on the right track vis-รจ-vis Magic Mike, which does after all feature Channing Tatum in a movie based on his own life story, but not as "himself", but there are times when we cannot see the forest for the trees, and "Why male strippers?" is a great many trees to get hung up on.

In the event, the notion behind Magic Mike is even more obvious than it would appear: "why male strippers?" is not such a different question than "why high-class prostitutes?", and the film turns out to be very much a companion piece to Soderbergh's 2009 The Girlfriend Experience, for both are fables about economic anxiety in which the commodification of one's own flesh is represented as being both the last indignity possible as well as a bold gesture of self-reliance and empowerment. There are undoubted differences in telling this story with a female vs. a male protagonist, and this very much informs the way the film plays out, but neither gender nor sexuality strictly proscribes Soderbergh's approach to either of these movies: I pity the legions of middle-aged women who were sucked in by the movie's "make it a girls' night!" ad campaign (to the tune of a stupendously big opening weekend, only failing to be the biggest debut of Soderbergh's career by a couple tens of thousands of dollars; and that on a project made for, basically, the money the director and his star were able to shake out of their couch cushions), only to be confronted by a film that, even when it does indulge in shots of its male cast in such a small amount of clothing that it doesn't really count, gyrating and sweaty, is far more studied and objective than it is erotic. It's a brainy exercise that was sent out to the world as though it was a piece of exploitation, and that's simply not fair, to the movie nor to its horny female (and let us be progressive, horny gay male) audience. Even though, compared to The Girlfriend Experience, Magic Mike is so much less experimental in its structure and form, and so much more naturalistic in its characterisation and performance - it might even be the most naturalistic Soderbergh film since the 1990s, though this says more about his directorial style than the movie itself - that if we were to stick by the old "one for the studio, one for the director" formula that hasn't really held true since Ocean's Twelve, this is the one for the studio; it is, at least, the closest thing to a crowd-pleaser that the director has put his name to in a great many years.

It is, for starters, an entry in that great ancient genre, the Backstage Drama with a Fresh-Faced New Star. The star, based we are told on Tatum himself in his early days as a stripper, is 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer), quickly nicknamed "The Kid" by Mike (Tatum), when they work together on a construction job one day in June in Tampa, Florida. Since Adam is a perpetual fuck-up with a crippling hatred for authority, he quits his job the very same it starts, and this could be the end of it; except he happens to bump into Mike that evening at a club, and the older man decides to exploit the kid's youth by using him as the bait to get at a gaggle of sorority girls. For Mike isn't just a run-of-the-mill construction worker, he's Magic Mike, the star of at male striptease club called Xquisite, owned and operated by the charismatic Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), whom we have already met in the film's magnificently sordid opening scene, where he tells the assembled ladies of the audience about the rules of the grinding, sweaty, raunchy spectacle they are about to witness.

The Kid, as will happen in films of this type, immediately steps in and though he kind of sucks right off the bat, is nurtured into the life of a stripper over the course of that summer, while Dallas prepares to execute a massive scheme to move his operation to the far more economically robust beaches of Miami, while Mike deals with what can only be described as a crisis of domesticity: right at the cusp of his 30s, he has an unexpressed desire to settle down with a life mate, and since his present sexual partner Joanna (Olivia Munn) isn't apparently willing to get serious enough for that to happen, he starts to gravitate towards Adam's big sister Brooke (Cody Horn), though she has unbridled contempt for the fast-paced, drug-fueled life that Mike is leading her defenseless sibling into.

It writes itself, you'd think; and yet the script by Reid Carolin goes to some decidedly nonstandard places. If nothing else, the story is amazingly overstuffed with transactions and business plans: Mike is the operator of several companies, all designed to get him enough starter capital to see his dream of owning a custom furniture business come to pass; Dallas has his scheme to expand his stripping empire; there's a cringe-inducing scene at a loan officer's desk; a lengthy diatribe about how to replace childhood with an indoctrination in market economics, to make our children more efficient wealth-producing machines; a late subplot about drugs spends far more time dissecting the economics of dealing than the actual substance being sold. And, of course, stripping itself, the last of the get-rich-quick schemes in an America that has run out of options for the little folks among us to get our heads above water. If The Girlfriend Experience was a story about the collapse of the economy and how people attempted to stave it off, Magic Mike is its nihilistic sequel, a story of life in a time when the economy has been so anemic for so long that people simply accept that as part of the new American fabric, and attempt in their small, dismal ways to survive at any costs within that landscape - and if it involves constant, barely-sublimated attempts to destroy oneself through debauchery, so much the better.

It's like The Girlfriend Experience in another way, too: the cast functions to a certain degree as a commentary on the act of casting a movie. Channing Tatum, of course, was for a long time primarily known as a pretty face with no meaningful acting ability who had at one point stripped; it is a fantastic piece of luck for Soderbergh's movie that Tatum has spent 2012 becoming a movie star, because that adds a whole new layer, but what's striking to me about the movie is that its three biggest roles are played by Tatum, Pettyfer, and McConaughey, all of them typically regarded as superficial sexy dudes whose value is strictly as eye candy, all of them giving career-best performances here (this is turning into quite a banner year for McConaughey, in that regard - in Bernie, he already made a play for that title earlier this summer)- Tatum as the easygoing striver, Pettyfer as a callow kid who quickly loses the ability to distinguish between "I am able to do this" and "I should do this", and McConaughey as a magnificently slick huckster who is equally smutty and charming in his role as Xquisite's master of ceremonies (it's impossible not to think of the leering, omnisexual MC from Cabaret; Dallas is like that character, suddenly given a massive, destabilising injecting of humanism and warmth, even when we don't like him all that much). The trick, then, is that Soderbergh is making a movie about the male body, and fills it up with men primarily famous for their looks; and he then tricks us by making his stripper movie all about the way these men think and feel, rather than how they gyrate and writhe.

Indeed, for all that the movie presents its cluster of full-lengthy striptease routines with unblinking interest - and by God, all the kudos in the world to Soderbergh for editing a film (which he did himself, under his standard nom du montage Mary Ann Bernard) in which the dance numbers (for lo and behold, Magic Mike is, in its highly idiosyncratic way, a musical) where we get to see the dancers moving at great length, without interruption, as much as to say "yes, they're actually doing it, and yes, it's pretty damned impressive" - the key images here are not physically flawless men in g-strings, but faces in reaction shots. These come in all sorts of flavors: the comedic (Pettyfer doing a double, then a triple, then a quadruple take as another stripper nonchalantly uses a penis pump), the dramatic (a late profile of Tatum, realising with disgust that he's got nothing to show for having spent his entire adulthood stripping), the exhilirating (McConaughey's exultant grin, a number of times), or the unreadable (Horn - absolutely fantastic and worthy of all sorts of breakthrough notices she's certainly not likely to get, this being "the male stripper" movie and all - watching with fascination the first time she steps inside Xquisite, the cross-cutting between her granite face and the routine she sees being the ballsiest editorial gesture I've seen all year, obscuring meaning rather than explaining it in a kind of reverse-Kuleshov effect).

Certainly, the film doesn't skimp on naked male flesh - Soderbergh, also serving as DP (this time as Peter Andrews), captures the grubby-sexy quality of the strip club with tremendous flair, filming glistening flesh and ratty dollar bills with equal textural fascination (I'm less impressed with his filtered-all-to-hell yellow exteriors; yes, Steven, Miami is hot and humid and sticky, and you've made your movie look like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake to prove it) - and the fact that the filmmakers know that we're there, in part if not in full, to get a peek at Tatum and McConaughey's business, gives the film a certain added kick, given how thoroughly it provides wiggling ass cheeks and oiled pecs by the cartload, but all divested of eroticism (it's strikingly like Eyes Wide Shut in this regard); in effect, it catches us in the act of wanting to be voyeurs, and cheats us out of whatever prurient thrill got us into the theater. That's, again, a damn dirty trick to play on the repressed housewives of America, but it fits the theme perfectly: for it incorporates us, as an audience, into the same series of transactions that make up the bulk of its plot. Sex as an economic act: this is the state of affairs that Magic Mike dramatises, and its hero's journey lies in the desire to break out of that cycle. It's that thread of humanism, complete with a startlingly optimistic ending, that makes the film such a friendly experience, a weird but emotionally satisfying world away from the tawdry experience that the subject matter, and the opening scenes, would seem to promise.