Much of the talk surrounding director Steven Soderbergh in the months before the release of his male-stripper movie Magic Mike concerned the Palme d'Or winner's stated desire to quit filmmaking once and for all -- that he needed to get away and rethink his entire approach to directing. Magic Mike is many things, including his autobiographical expression of this longing to get out of the business.
The movie stars Channing Tatum as the title character, an entrepreneur who works as a roofer and in several other occupations, but makes most of his money being the star attraction at Club Xquisite, a male strip joint in Tampa that fills every weekend night with drunken, horny women eager to slide dollar bills between hard-bodied dudes and the G-strings they wear. While on a roofing job, Mike meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a misfit college dropout who lost a football scholarship when he punched his coach, and he decides to teach the kid how to become an exotic dancer. Mike introduces Adam to Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the owner of the club, and gets him onto the crew of regular performers.
Much like he did with Contagion, Soderbergh spends the first half of Magic Mike giving you exactly the movie you expect -- in this case, a beefcake-laden tour of a sleazy and funny subculture that's like an old-school backstage-showbiz melodrama crossed with Chippendales. However, the most cerebral of A-list American directors has no interest in doing just that. Thanks to a solid script by Reid Carolin, Soderbergh continuously reminds us that every decision these characters make has to do with money. This is both a critique of capitalism -- showcasing its good and bad elements -- and a self-revealing explanation of why Soderbergh is done with moviemaking. Although Mike has a blast at his job and is paid well for it, his ultimate goal is to open his own furniture-design company. He wants to create unique pieces from found objects, but the demands of the marketplace -- and the various material benefits of rolling in dough -- make it hard for him to do more than just talk about this dream.
As is usually the case, Soderbergh casts the film to perfection. Tatum has grown as an actor in the last few years, and his effortless charisma here opens up new possibilities for his career -- he proves he's capable of carrying a picture with more than just his remarkable physique. Cody Horn, who plays Adam's sister and a possible love interest for Mike, has a no-nonsense quality that seems earned by a woman with a brother as messed up as hers. And Pettyfer does a great job with his role as the hot-headed ingénue seduced by sudden wealth, fame, and drugs.
However, the piéce de résistance is McConaughey, an actor who was truly born to play a male stripper named Dallas. As the club owner, he's the symbol of capitalism's power -- he's positioning to open a bigger spot in Miami -- and glistens with sweat and smarm. He's a natural for the part, and he gets an amazing scene in which he teaches Adam how to do a pelvic thrust that will send young women to such levels of revelry that they won't be able to help themselves from forking over their cash. It's a very funny, deeply cynical spin on the traditional training sequence, and if this movie had come out in November instead of June, there would be Oscar buzz surrounding McConaughey (with that scene in particular providing the perfect highlight).
This is far from the first time Soderbergh has made explicit connections between money and interpersonal relationships, nor is it the first time he's focused on people who command a lucrative payday for offering up their physical attributes. In many ways, Magic Mike feels like a big-budget, gender-flipped version of his micro-indie drama The Girlfriend Experience, which starred porn queen Sasha Grey as a high-end call girl who attempts to have a meaningful private life while being an expert at making her clients feel like the most special men on Earth during their brief time together. The focus here isn't so much on how Mike's career decisions affect his ability to connect with women, but on how his choices have led him astray from his own sense of himself -- how easily he's lived a lifestyle that no longer interests him.
In that regard, one of the most enjoyable arcs in the film is Mike's relationship with Joanna (Olivia Munn), a grad student who treats Mike like a fellow traveler on a quest for erotic satisfaction. She has his number before he does, and the way their relationship develops reveals both to him and to us how far his real life is from the one he wants to be living.
All this makes the movie sound like a heavy-handed drama, but Soderbergh's touch is mostly light and always entertaining. You're allowed to ogle these guys on-stage in various routines -- including one in which they start out dressed as soldiers that will put any jingoistic prudes in a tizzy trying to figure out how and why they're offended. Add to that Tatum's abundant charisma, as well as the overwhelming presence that is McConaughey finding heretofore unseen levels of narcissism, and what you've got is a smart movie that never fails to entertain the audience.
What's so appealing about the film is how little bitterness Soderbergh has for this business. He could have easily fashioned something that would have been an attack on audiences for making him waste his time on such silly diversions, but there isn't a whiff of that at all. Mike isn't a martyr to success, just someone ready to start over. Magic Mike makes a perfect punctuation mark to end the career of a great director -- if in fact he really does walk away from it all.