The male stripper dramedy Magic Mike was loosely inspired by Channing Tatum’s pre-fame stint as a teenage dancer. But it’s hard not to read it as the alternate-universe autobiography of its director, Steven Soderbergh. This is Soderbergh’s threatened penultimate film, and it concerns an exotic dancer (Tatum) slowly realizing he wants out. He’s around the 30-year-old-mark, and while he can still bust the moves and command a cash-stuffed g-string, another life seems to call him. For our titular hero, that’s domesticity; for Soderbergh, it’s another art form: painting.
Soderbergh has always seemed bored with convention—even Ocean’s Eleven is fairly sarcastic in its populism—but the last several years have found him particularly detached. Contagion is a cold interpretation of an Irwin Allen pandemic saga; Haywire may be the first academic action movie. Whether these are signs of why he’s about to abandon cinema would be to invoke a Psych 101 analysis, but Soderbergh attacks Magic Mike with a similar clinical, borderline-scientific remove.
At least it delivers the goods: that is, plenty of scenes of Tatum and company— including Alex Pettyfer as Tatum’s devil-may-care young charge and Matthew McConaughey as the joint’s vaguely sinister emcee—engaged in pelvic thrusting inches from the lens. Like Godard with Brigitte Bardot in Contempt, Soderbergh frontloads the Channing buttage, although he pushes most of the drama to the third act.
Till then, Magic Mike is a freewheeling blast. Soderbergh’s strange sense of humor manifests itself in pockets: the retro ’80s Warner Bros. logo; a hilarious out-of-focus dick shot. Mostly, he piggybacks off his star’s own odd comic streak. 21 Jump Street revealed the depth of Tatum’s laid-back goofiness first, and Magic Mike simply reiterates it. At one point, he even flubs a line (or appears to) and is able to not only make it work but to charm his co-stars into not destroying the take. He’s charismatic but unpolished, allergic to sentimentality, and he has an ideal romantic lead in Cody Horn, whose performance, forever teetering between skeptical and sincere, is inelegant in a thrilling way. Soderbergh is a filmmaker looking for the fresh and unpredictable. Who would have imagined he’d find these qualities in the beefcake star of G.I. Joe and the daughter of a Disney exec?