Steven Soderbergh is so prolific and so good, that — for all his acclaim — I worry that we’re collectively not quite appreciating what he’s been giving us for the last twenty years. Doubly so since he keeps threatening to retire and take up painting. Magic Mike seems like a relatively minor effort, and maybe it is; certainly it’s less formally audacious than something like Contagion or The Girlfriend Experience. But it’s nonetheless a distinctly Soderberghian treasure: entertaining, thematically potent, and piercingly intelligent.
(The latter quality is one reason I’m a little concerned about the guy’s legacy — his main distinguishing trait is how smart he is, and films that stand out along that axis get less respect than ones that are flashy or more bluntly ambitious.)
Magic Mike is Soderbergh’s “male stripper movie,” with all the baggage that entails. It delivers on the beefcakey expectations that are making everyone all aflutter: set mostly at a smallish Tampa Bay strip club, it features a good half-dozen energetic, endearingly rough-around-the-edges routines, with the film’s not-at-all-unattractive stars strutting and preening and getting not quite completely naked to the rowdy adoration of the women in the room. And it depicts all of this (including, at one point, a throwaway demonstration of a pump-action penis enlarger) without trying to shame anybody. These guys are narcissists of the first order, but they’re having fun. A film about women who take off their clothes for a living could never, sadly, be so non-judgmental.
There’s a dark side to what the film depicts, but it isn’t quite what you would think: there’s casual drug use and some mid-level debauchery, but the film isn’t about the “dark underbelly” of the sex industry, or anything like that. The unease builds almost imperceptibly, until what seemed ecstatic and liberating early in the film becomes profoundly disquieting. The precision with which Soderbergh executes this shift is astounding. Magic Mike is a small masterpiece of modulation.
The story is allegedly based on the real-life experiences of its star, Channing Tatum, who spent some time working in a Florida club before his modeling and acting careers took off. English actor Alex Pettyfer presumably stands in for young Tatum here, playing an aimless nineteen year-old nicknamed “the Kid,” who is lured into a new career as a stripper by the title character (Tatum himself). Thrown on stage to the sounds of “Like a Virgin” and told to take off his clothes, the Kid is bewildered, but soon finds himself rolling with the energy of the gawking, groping crowd of admirers. He quickly takes to Magic Mike’s lifestyle of women, sex, drugs, and at least the illusion of total freedom. (“I think we should be best friends,” he tells Mike a few days after popping his stripper cherry.) Meanwhile Mike, who is pushing thirty, working three jobs, and trying to get a furniture business off the ground (there’s a brilliant scene with Tatum and Betsy Brandt as a hilariously smitten loan officer), develops a crush on the Kid’s sister (the wonderful Cody Horn) and wonders if maybe it’s time he got out of the stripping game.
The film is about the corrosiveness of finding your identity in being lusted after. It doesn’t judge– there’s nothing wrong or offensive about taking your clothes off for money in any moral sense — but it makes clear how tough and merciless this industry is; how, at every step of the way, it will tell you exactly what you’re worth. And once age starts to take its toll, God help you. When Magic Mike is on stage, he’s transported, and it’s something to see, but it becomes increasingly hard to watch. A hilariously sleazy Matthew McConaughey plays the club owner, an aging stud who mostly emcees but on rare occasions hits the stage to remember the good old days — and the euphoric transformation we see in him when he does is downright frightening.
It’s still hard to tell if Channing Tatum is actually a good actor, or just a charismatic dude with a lot of presence, but he hits all the right notes here; the screenplay gives him a variation on a Big Speech toward the end of the film, and his stammering, earnest, almost incredulous delivery makes it connect. And Soderbergh makes the film move and dance in his usual unflashy, perceptive way. His retirement, if it happens, will be a tragedy.
— Eugene Novikov