The Upside Of False Advertising

Advertisers have led me (and likely millions of other straight men) to believe that I am irrevocably outside of the target demographic for “Magic Mike.” Understandable. A film about guys removing their clothes for a living exists purely to draw women (and a certain subset of men) to movie theaters, right? The wild card in this equation is director Steven Soderbergh. This is his third theatrical release in the last 10 months, following 2011’s “Contagion” and 2012’s “Haywire” – both modest commercial successes. But, Soderbergh has rarely sought commercial success, and when it comes his way, it’s always on his terms (see: “Erin Brockovich” and “Ocean’s Eleven”). “Magic Mike” is his latest perfect storm of marketability and smart, inventive avant-garde cinema – a resourceful character piece built upon a cacophony of cinematic contrast.

Channing Tatum plays the title character, a worn down thirty-year-old longing for self-employment (as a furniture designer), but always settling to make a quick buck (in both construction and exotic dancing). He can disarm people with his smile and charisma, but beneath the surface is a troubled soul looking for an honest living and a steady relationship.

When Mike becomes friends with the much younger Adam (Alex Pettyfer), also known as “The Kid,” he takes him under his wing and helps him the only way he knows how – by getting him a job as a dancer. The club’s owner, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), is something of a snake oil salesman, playing on the lesser desires of drunk women and bachelorette parties, while treating his employees like family. When in doubt, beware the cutthroat businessman with questionable motives.

As “The Kid” becomes one of the club’s main draws, Mike develops an on-again, off-again friendship with Adam’s sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), who possesses a girl-next-door sweetness that’s clearly missing in Mike’s life. She is utterly unimpressed by his life choices and resents Mike for the direction in which he has guided her brother. Adam is eventually entangled in the drug scene, his problems escalate, and the relationship between Mike and Brooke becomes accordingly rocky.

The dance scenes are highly suggestive (of course), if not outright crude, but Soderbergh (acting as his own director of photography) wisely shoots and edits them like any other Hollywood director might – with great panache and little regard for subtlety. As unexpected as this technique is from Soderbergh, it clashes brilliantly with his typically understated, cinéma vérité approach to character work. The club serves as a trancelike counterweight to the washed out, diffused look of the outside world. The duality of these characters’ lives is palpable which allows the audience to experience some of the same confusion.

The film features Tatum’s best performance to date (following his breakthrough turn in this year’s “21 Jump Street”), and “Magic Mike” is at its most electric when he is onscreen. Pettyfer fares nearly as well, and the brotherly bond between the two is as believable as it is harrowing. The rest of the cast, made up of smaller supporting roles, accents the intense and increasingly apparent dismay in Mike’s life. These are not content, functional people, and their stage personalities only mask (if not highlight) their inadequacies as human beings.

Male stripping aside (which isn’t necessarily the crux of the film), “Magic Mike” is one of Steven Soderbergh’s finest works to date. His usually stark cinematography is sometimes lost on audiences, but here it is used to overwhelming effect. In conjunction with the high-energy and bright colors of the club scenes, the desolate photography and desperate onscreen personalities combine to make an incomparably dark but hopeful character study. If Soderbergh actually retires from filmmaking as he intends to next year, his imagination and unique creative voice will be missed tremendously.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter: Reid Carolin
Starring: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn, Matt Bomer, Riley Keough, Joe Mangianello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias
MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive sexual content, brief graphic nudity, language and some drug use)