Steven Soderbergh is at such a fascinating point in his career, having put out Contagion, Hawyire, and now Magic Mike — three films of very different overall quality, but all made with that same crackling assurance — within the span of two years. Each of these works have brought him one step closer to his impending, self-announced retirement from filmmaking, which, at the present moment, is an even more tormenting thought than it was previously, since Magic Mike — so crisp, so perceptive, and so fundamentally moving — instantly takes on the aura of top-tier work.
Watching some of the feats Soderbergh pulls of so coolly here, I’m weirdly reminded of a cold-blooded Michael Jordan performance against the Utah Jazz — by the sixth or seventh unthinkably-made shot, everything starts to look effortless, falling into place with a soft, sublime elegance that functions to make you briefly unaware of how difficult an achievement you’re witnessing. Similarly, in Magic Mike — I guess it’s the title that brought Jordan to mind — Soderbergh lulls you into a spell, so that an extended, one-take beachside conversation feels less like the startling accomplishment it is and more like an off-the-cuff documentary.
The reason for this is that Soderbergh — in addition to the sharp, quick-witted screenplay from Reid Carolin — is confident enough to resist the explicit temptations of his material. He finds subtle strokes where other filmmakers would resort to cheap exhibitionism, as in an early scene in which Channing Tatum groggily wakes up, and we slowly — only slowly — learn that he performed in a ménage à trois the previous night. Think about all the other ways this beat could’ve been filmed, and you start to realize how intent and focused Soderbergh is on capturing this lifestyle. He remains familiarly downbeat and lived-in when it’d be tempting to go exotic and fully-charged.
As for the performances, there are so many good ones that I have no idea where to begin. Tatum, drawing on his own real-life experiences in the title role, brings the same endearing lightness that earned him points in 21 Jump Street, but the character-driven Carolin script allows him to work deeper. What results in an earnest portrait of a man torn between personality and profession, a man who’s only getting older and is doing all he can to ensure that the work he does — ranging from construction to custom-furniture-building to, yes, male stripping — won’t all get swept up by the Tampa sand.
Second-billed is Alex Pettyfer (I Am Number Four), who’s nearly unrecognizable as the dark-haired, scruffily-bearded Adam. Pettyfer has an early gesture that’s revelatory, and lays the groundwork for an enthralling arc. Having met Mike during a roofing gig, he’s brought by his new friend to a nightclub where male performers dance and strip for screaming women. In need of a short sketch, Mike throws Adam onstage, unprepared and inexperienced. In Adam, we have 19-year-old kid who’s ruined a football scholarship, and within months of that low-blow, people are yelling at him, pleading for his clothes to hit the deck. He could run out of the room, but the way he succumbs to it — the way he soaks in the pleasure of attention — makes for a character of unyielding vulnerability.
In the midst of a serious-actor resurgence, Matthew McConaughey — who was already terrific this year in Richard Linklater’s Bernie and is set for at least three yet-to-be-released films — is superbly lively as the group’s manager, Dallas. Smooth and suave, but harboring a need for control, Dallas is that coach you love to be around when you’re winning, but a little less so when things start sliding. For all of his shiny charm, it’s McConaughey’s ability to imply ruthlessness that impresses most.
Staging-wise, the film’s strip-club sequences — which, thankfully, will probably make the film a commercial hit — are everything you’d want them to be, but it’s Soderbergh’s backstage-action notes that astound, catching the behind-the-scenes camaraderie with a reserved intimacy that brings to mind Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, and not only because one of the troupe’s dancers, Tarzan (Kevin Nash), is a real-life pro-wrestler. Scenes like the one where Adam, on his first night, feels pressured into rubbing lotion on Tarzan’s legs have the ring of authentic, low-level hazing. And Soderbergh, astutely, keeps his camera at a distance, inviting us to explore everything in the frame, from Tarzan’s lotioned-up legs in the foreground to people in the background who may only have a line or two in the entire film. His intent is to communicate the very scent of this atmosphere, and he succeeds.
Those crafty stylings aside, what’s perhaps most surprising about the film is how winningly it depicts its more conventional rom-com shadings. As Adam’s level-headed sister, Cody Horn does a lovely job not only of forming her own character, but also of revealing more layers of Tatum’s, as the two share the screen quite a bit throughout. Carolin’s whip-smart dialogue in these scenes maintains an uncommon faithfulness to the two characters, so that when they’re together, it feels right on a gut level, and not merely in story terms.
If, in that way, Magic Mike is extremely effective on a personal level, the film is additionally filled with arresting sociological insight. Soderbergh, acting as usual as his own cinematographer, covers the film in a mustard-yellow tint, as if the world on display has turned to dust. The economic landscape is harsh and unforgiving, and threatens to suck the essence out of these vigorous youths. To call it timely would be accurate, but limiting. More satisfying is how rewarding and revealing it is on a primal level.
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