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‘Magic Mike’ finds Soderbergh in typically expert form, despite the subject matter

‘Magic Mike’ finds Soderbergh in typically expert form, despite the subject matter

Magic Mike
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Reid Carolin
USA, 2012

When does Steven Soderbergh sleep? Is it possible that he stays awake all day long? How else to explain the inexplicable speed with which he makes movies? Last September, Soderbergh had the big-budget film Contagion open to decent box office and acclaim. This January, he released the excellent, gritty actioner Haywire. Now, he’s behind the camera for Magic Mike, a drama focusing on male strippers in Tampa, Florida, because why the hell not? Based in part on the life experiences of Channing Tatum, who stars in and co-produced the film, Magic Mike is surprisingly assured and entertaining – only if Steven Soderbergh cranking out another expertly made film qualifies as surprising.

Tatum plays Mike, known as Magic Mike at Xquisite, a local strip club where he’s worked nights for six years while starting up various would-be legitimate businesses during the day. As the story (written by Reid Carolin) begins, Mike finds a fresh new talent in a slacker teen named Adam (Alex Pettyfer), who turned down a college football scholarship to mooch off the goodwill of his sister, Brooke (Cody Horn). Though Adam is initially taken aback by Xquisite, he soon gets a taste for stripping. More specifically, he gets a taste for the good life that comes with stripping: cash, beautiful women, drugs, and more. Mike, meanwhile, begins a tentative friendship with Brooke, and questions whether he wants to strip for his entire life, or follow his dream of making custom furniture.

With or without Soderbergh’s involvement, Magic Mike is a compelling, fascinating story not about what it’s like to be a stripper, but what it’s like to struggle in the modern world. Mike has confidence on the Xquisite stage, taking off his clothes and gyrating around, but he’s scared to take the leap into a riskier, more respectable, and far less hedonistic venture. Tatum is a strong anchor for the film, playful, tender, and more perceptive than he looks. The man has had a banner year, what with his genuinely hilarious turn in 21 Jump Street and supporting role in Haywire, but this is perhaps the best evidence that he’s actually a charming, charismatic actor, improving upon his more wooden early performances.

Tatum’s matched by the rest of the cast, specifically Matthew McConaughey as Xquisite’s owner and emcee Dallas. McConaughey is, in some ways, playing another version of the louche horndog we’ve seen in most of his films. That said, he’s clearly having the time of his life, strumming a guitar, slapping bongos, and leaping around the stage as if he’s lived there for years. Adam is something of a blank slate, being led around by the nose by those who can easily take advantage of him, but Pettyfer is better here than in last year’s execrable I Am Number Four. Horn has an easy, laid-back rapport with Tatum, though Brooke’s relationship with Adam is perhaps lacking a bit of dimension or interaction. The sibling relationship is either too subtle or somewhat weakly defined, but is the film’s only real problem.

Still, in many ways, the star of this film—at least for film buffs—is Steven Soderbergh. From the opening seconds, as the 1970s-era Warner Bros. logo soars onto the screen, you know he’s leaving his stamp on the film. The camerawork (by Soderbergh, as usual) is typically striking, with odd, oblique angles that call attention to themselves and make sense within a scene. The editing (again, by Soderbergh) is crisp and helps maintain the film’s sometimes breathless pace. Just watching Magic Mike is to be reminded what a true auteur, what a modern master Soderbergh can be. He’s possibly the most eclectic modern American filmmaker, but he also knows exactly how to get mainstream audiences engaged in the story as much as people who embrace his artier affairs.

Seeing as it’s about male strippers, there will be a fair amount of tittering (different gender, but pun intended) regarding Magic Mike. And yes, the stripping sequences are centerpieces; Tatum, Pettyfer, and others like Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello show off impressive dancing skills. However, the story that Tatum, Carolin, and Soderbergh want to tell the audience is more than buff guys thrusting their crotches at giddy housewives. (Though that does happen more than a few times.) As inexplicable as it may sound, Magic Mike is a dramatically satisfying, purely entertaining film; it happens to be about male strippers, but proves even the beefcake providing entertainment at a bachelorette party is more than just a guy with six-pack abs.

Josh Spiegel