Steven Soderbergh offers up the hunky populist flipside to his lo-fi call girl depressive The Girlfriend Experience. Slyly commenting on the last decade or so of his Hollywood film career, he punctures the myth of the American Dream, and provides a little something for the ladies all at the same time — that's right: Channing Tatum's bare buns show up in the first five minutes. Bam! Done. Magic Mike sells itself as Cocktail for the new and raunchier millennium, but it reveals that Soderbergh is too intellectually restless to sell out — even when he's supposedly selling out.
With one foot in the multiplex and the other in the art house, the filmmaker's studio assignments have never fully embraced their craven box office goals. Whether it's been the Ocean's 11 hits, Contagion or Oscar bait like Erin Brockovich and Traffic, Soderbergh can't help but screw with convention. Even in his most commercially minded movies you'll find oddball thematic exercises, misdirected expectations, intellectual in-jokes and experiments in style and form.
Still, anyone who surveys the last decade of his career would be hard-pressed to find anything approaching the passion he demonstrated in The Limey, Out of Sight and King of the Hill. There have been artsy side projects to be sure (Bubble, Che, The Informant!), and his attention to craft has never been in question. But somewhere along the way it seemed as if Soderbergh stopped putting his heart and soul into his work and instead started tinkering with subtext, deconstruction and meta-narratives. It's as if movie-making has become an elaborate Sudoku puzzle.
Strange as it may sound, Magic Mike's male stripper money shots are less a celebration of Tatum and company's impressive pecs and abs and more the jaded reflections of an artist who's lost faith in his career choices. How else do you explain the frequent and lingering shots of crumpled money being tossed at his cast, or a scene with Tatum in which a fellow stripper graphically enhances himself with a penis pump in the foreground? Can you say "metaphor"?
Soderbergh has always wrestled with the psychological, economic and emotional toll that work puts on our lives. And though he always finds the high points, compromise, disappointment and discouragement have become the defining message of his recent efforts. Which, of course, feeds into the director's announcement that he's decided to retire from filmmaking to become a painter. Magic Mike is one of three final projects.
The story centers around Tatum's Mike, a hard-working, entrepreneurial guy who dreams of becoming a custom furniture designer. To earn enough to make that dream a reality, Mike climbs the economic ladder with stacks of dollar bills earned from his nights as a popular male stripper (inspired by Tatum's real-life experiences) at a popular Tampa Beach spot (run by Matthew McConaughey). Taking a directionless young stud (Alex Pettyfer) on as his protégé, Mike is introduced to his attractive, no-nonsense sister (newcomer Cody Horn), and starts rethinking his life choices. The beautiful women and endless partying have lost their luster, and Mike, now 30, has grown weary of the constant hustling and rationalizing.
Thematically, this is where Soderbergh lives, and female audiences who came for some bun-tastic bump and grind (which the first 40 minutes delivers in spades) may be surprised by the melancholy tone of the second half. Magic Mike becomes another of his explorations into how our jobs, no matter how glamorous they seem on the surface, can deplete our souls. Money is depicted as the lure, the goal, the limiting factor and the ever-present yardstick. Life is measured in nickels and dimes. It's a point that's driven home when Mike, determined to secure a small business loan for his entrepreneurial dream, discovers that a credit score is far more important that the briefcase full of wrinkled singles he offers as a down payment.
True to Soderbergh's recent run, Magic Mike is yet another cinematic sleight-of-hand, a movie that seems to promise some guilt-free "wham-bam, thank you, man," but ultimately asks its audience to contemplate the spiritual toll of its decisions.