A Steven Soderbergh movie usually means a certain level of affectation: the use of comics as straight men in The Informant!, the meta-genre experiment of The Good German, the ironic detachment heaped upon ironic detachment of Ocean’s Twelve. The way he made the apocalypse forgettable. Even Haywire was more about the idea of an action movie than an actual action movie. Soderbergh can tend to feel a little too stuck in his own head, trapped between warring desires to tell a story and comment on his process at the same time. And while there are a few instances of that in Magic Mike — the film opens with a version of the Warner Bros. logo not seen since the 1970s, just for the hell of it — what makes the film so strong is that Soderbergh seems to have rekindled his love of telling intimately observed stories that place as much emphasis on emotional continuity as it does on lighting schemes. This isn’t cinema from a cool observer; this is a film with punch and nuance, and one that isn’t afraid to connect to its characters or audience. You can feel how much Soderbergh actually cares about his hero here, which means he’s also willing to let him fail. This is the most emotionally true film that Soderbergh’s made in years, and it’s nice to finally have the heart reconnected to the brain. In a pleasing contradiction, Soderbergh has found a way to take a step forward by getting back to basics.
Many of Soderbergh’s films are about men and women whose biggest enemy is their own reputation and the fear that they’re being perceived in ways they don’t want and can’t control. His best movies are about thieves and scoundrels who become unhappy victims of systems to which they initially submit their lives without much thought, so it makes sense that he’d be able to find the emotional root in a story about a twentysomething bro who lucks into being a stripper and can’t seem to extract himself from that world. Magic Mike is set in the cheesy, uncomfortable, mostly depressing world of male strip clubs, and though it has moments of real sexiness, don’t be misled by the ads: this is a sex comedy the way Boogie Nights is a rom-com. Soderbergh focuses on the sad, weird hilarity of the industry and its inhabitants, keeping a tight balance between drama and comedy. The film’s biggest strength, though, is Channing Tatum.
As Mike, Tatum brings to bear the charm he let loose in 21 Jump Street and couples it with a believable frustration at his inability to forge a better life for himself. Mike works at an all-male dance revue in Tampa with a handful of other guys, all under the control of a manager named Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). The inherent cheesiness of the show has allowed Mike to soldier through it for more years than he’s realized, though he’s trying to break out with a number of side businesses, most notably a custom furniture shop. He’s running in place, though, inured to the effects of his night job by the money, local celebrity, and apparently unending supply of women. Tatum is perfectly suited to the role, strutting around with such ease that not even he’s aware of how unhappy he is.
Soderbergh captures all the tacky glory of the stage show, too. It’s not that he’s averse to the sexuality of the performers — Mike and the rest of the club’s crew always look great up in lights, writhing like happy devils — it’s that he knows how to take just one half-step back and let them live in the glitzy arena between sex gods and jesters. The club looks run-down even with the lights off, and the costumes and music are unabashedly low-rent. Soderbergh also doubles as cinematographer, as usual, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, and he makes wonderful use of light and color to separate the club, where Mike comes alive, with the rest of the world, where Mike’s just another guy splitting time between construction work and a struggling side business. The Tampa we see is burnished amber inside and out, but the club is a blast of blues and reds, offset by gleaming sweat. It’s like a casino, with a visual pop that contributes to the allure and makes you forget time and reason.
Mike’s world isn’t made to last, though, and he starts to see the cracks when he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer) while working construction and recruits the younger man into the club’s ranks. Mike christens him The Kid and shoves him on stage one night, and soon enough, Adam is doing his best to emulate the lifestyle he sees so gaudily displayed by Mike and the other men. The film is based in part on Tatum’s life: he spent about six months working as a stripper when he was 19, dropping out of college in the process, and it’s this sense of listless hedonism that informs Adam and his decisions. The screenplay from Reid Carolin does a nice job of setting up the duality of Mike and Adam, as well as the cyclical nature of the club, without hitting any one beat too hard. Rather, Soderbergh lets us spend time with Mike and watch him grow from frustrated hustler to a man who knows his life has to change, if only he could figure out how to do it.
Tatum sells these moments perfectly, too. He’s got ridiculous chemistry with everyone on screen, even with a wan love interest in Adam’s sister, played by Cody Horn in a nicely understated way. He clicks even better with his fellow strippers: Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), and Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello). Pettyfer also does well with what’s ultimately a thankless role: he’s the one who has to become such a self-destructive catalyst for change that he spurs Mike to realize just how dead-end his own life has become. They work well as a pair, but really, this is Tatum’s show, and he owns every minute. In one of the film’s many compelling moments, Mike and Adam are talking about the future, with Adam shooting his mouth off about the big life while unconsciously belittling Mike’s desire to make something of himself. At one point he mentions “that furniture crap” that Mike is pushing, and he doesn’t fathom how much this toss-off has wounded Mike. But we do. Soderbergh’s spent the movie building to grandly small moments like this one, and in that instant, our heart breaks a little for a rapidly aging exotic dancer who’s forced to reconcile who he is with the man he wishes he could be. Tatum flickers just a little, just enough. It’s wrenching.
Soderbergh hits just the right mix of light and dark here, letting the club scene inhabitants glam it up while also showing just how empty or horrible some of them turn out to be. The setting helps him get away with it. Women tend to visit strip clubs or revues like these as larks, looking for sexual entertainment with high levels of performance and a sense of self-awareness of what they’re doing. Men, on the other hand, tend to patronize strip clubs for slightly darker sexual reasons, looking to inhabit a fantasy instead of experiencing it. (There’s a reason that Chippendale’s is a punch line while strip clubs for men are regularly busted for prostitution.) Yet in focusing on the goofiness of the male-revue world, Soderbergh finds its inherent, beautiful tragedy: Mike is a pitiable man, but no one thinks to pity him. He’s a smart man, but no one wants to listen. He’s a small timer who thinks he’s got it made, and there’s a fantastic journey to be had in watching him learn the truth and decide what to do with it.