Steven Soderbergh has to be the best chameleon auteur in American movies. When people go see a film by Woody Allen or Wes Anderson, they go for Woody Allen or Wes Anderson. But when crowds of women (and the occasional man) lined up for Magic Mike at the Majestic 10 last Saturday, I suspect few of them were there to witness the continued evolution of the man who revived American indie film with Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Nor did they seem eager to see how Soderbergh was progressing with his investigation of the unsavory things Americans will do for money during a recession, which he began in 2009 with the little-seen The Girlfriend Experience.
The fact that the director once made a four-hour biography of Che Guevera didn’t seem to inspire or deter this crowd, either. Their cheers when a shirtless Matthew McConaughey appeared on screen made their true motivation clear: They came to Magic Mike for the A-list abs.
Soderbergh’s latest look at the underbelly of capitalism focuses on the world of male strippers. It represents a triumph of Hollywood marketing, which has successfully presented Magic Mike as the ultimate fluffy girls’-night-out flick. But is it a triumph for the director?
Well ... Magic Mike is more substantial than one might expect from a film that pivots around Channing Tatum taking his clothes off. He plays the title character, a beefy Tampa lad who supplements his meager construction-crew income by appearing in the Xquisite Male Dance Revue. Its owner is the manic Dallas (McConaughey), himself an ex-stripper, who dreams of bigger things — namely, moving his act to Miami.
We get our intro to the stripping world through a third character, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a college dropout whom Mike takes under his wing and initiates in the ways of bumping, grinding and flirting with drunk sorority girls. Pettyfer makes a good ingenue — he seems both titillated and embarrassed by what he’s asked to do. Once Adam gets the hang of it, though, the character gyrates to conventional message-movie hell, as he succumbs to drugs and other temptations.
The film’s real protagonist is Mike, who hopes to save enough dough to start his own custom-furniture business. But, because this is not the show-biz dream world of Burlesque, his hopes run aground on bad credit. His bank does not take kindly to those who deal primarily in cash tugged from a G-string.
Scenes like this score didactic points (Mike reminds a loan officer that her own industry is floundering), but they’re blunted by the movie’s mellow atmosphere. Digitally sun-bleached, the exterior scenes are packed with tourist life and vegetation. Soderbergh gives us a palpable sense of the beach town as a playground for privileged young people who aren’t ready to get serious yet — and a potential trap for the less privileged, like Mike and Adam.
But the darker ecosystem of the club isn’t sufficiently explored. The other strippers — including TV actors Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello — remain little more than walk-ons. The motives of the women who frequent Xquisite — such as a slumming grad student (Olivia Munn) — don’t get much attention, either. Instead, Soderbergh devotes significant screen time to the prickly banter between Mike and Adam’s older sister (Cody Horn), who has a “legitimate” job and disapproves of stripping. While these scenes showcase Tatum’s teasing charm, and prove he has a future playing something besides variations on G.I. Joe, they don’t go much of anywhere.
Magic Mike could have been both a searing social document and a sexy, saucy good time. It could have been Soderbergh’s Boogie Nights. But like McConaughey — who jovially serves as both the club’s and the movie’s emcee — Magic Mike doesn’t aim that high. Soderbergh seems content to cater to lovers of exposed pecs, with sides of raunchy humor and heartache and the occasional dig at our crappy economy.
As formulas for summer movies go, that’s well above average. But, next time Soderbergh angles for an Oscar, no one will remember Magic Mike.