Review: Magic Mike

Steven Soderbergh is among cinema’s best chameleons. At first glance, one would never guess that a single director took on material ranging from a global virus outbreak (Contagion), an action flick starring an unknown female MMA fighter (Haywire), and most recently, a hunk filled film about the world of male stripping, all within the span of a single year. In distinct opposition to the auteur theory, it is quite clear that the director has not intentions of repeating himself. Though his visual sensibilities have become fairly recognizable to the vigilant eye, Soderbergh’s interests are as broad as cinema itself, so it should frankly come as no surprise that he turned his eyes to a somewhat scandalous subject. Don’t be fooled by the marketing. Magic Mike features much of the beefcake promises, but its true attention lies at the aspirations and tribulations of the individuals behind the gloss.

On its polished surface, the premise of Magic Mike could be mistaken for the recognizable tales straight out the MTV and VH1 narrative pipelines: a young guy looks beyond his horizons and yearns to do something legitimate with his life before he becomes swallowed up in a lifestyle he never intended to make a career. Partially based upon frontman Channing Tatum’s true history as a male stripper, the film wears a sheen as smooth as Soderbergh can lay on, but beneath it there is true turmoil going on, both psychologically and socially. If you would have told me a year ago that Channing Tatum would give one of the most credible performances of the year, I would have laughed in your face, but he does exactly that. Sure, he knows the ins and outs of the industry and his athleticism is never questioned, but offstage Tatum displays an offhanded naturalism that is startling and even revelatory. Soderbergh has a knack for finding sparks of talent in seemingly mediocre actors, and this is present throughout the entire ensemble. Nobody is more on fire in this film than Matthew McConaughey, whose character Dallas has plans of his own to expand to Miami and he intends on keeping Mike as the prime bronco in the stable. Not since Dazed and Confused has McConaughey owned a role with such gusto, and as his true colors emerge throughout the film, the actor makes us remember why he was so memorable twenty years ago. There are women in Magic Mike too, and even though their parts might not be as developed as their male counterparts, both Cody Horn and Olivia Munn provide a solid amount of substance.

Forgoing the eccentric and mile-a-minute turbine style that might have defined Magic Mike, Soderbergh’s own visual sensibilities act as the antithesis to the saturated excess that characterizes today’s MTV aesthetic. Acting as his own director of photography, Soderbergh lays on a grungy yellow tint to the look of the film, suggesting the grime hiding underneath the apparent glamorized lifestyle. Where others might indulge in epileptic level editing during the dance numbers, the photography and editorial are often restrained, maintaining the integrity of the onstage performances. The camera movements and compositions throughout are specifically composed for the naturalism that Soderbergh elicits from his ensemble. Witness, for instance, several scenes in which nearly no cutting occurs at all, in which the camera is often static and the scene simply plays out in an observational sense. Soderbergh only cuts and moves the camera when absolutely necessary. It is this type of offhanded style that gives the film a near docudrama feeling, without ever hinting at self consciousness.

Of course, the narrative is what matters here most, and though it ties itself up in a familiar fashion, its journey there is both fun and surprisingly resonant. A subplot of the film involves Mike taking a new guy played by Alex Pettyfer under his wing and the kid’s arc through the film becomes a key to Mike’s journey. A scene between the two of them near the end of the film carries a nearly unnoticeable heft that is so subtle and subtextual that is never advertised in the film’s marketing blitz but deserves to be. Mike’s journey is an uncharacteristic American tale, and he finds himself in an America where everyone’s wallets are becoming increasingly empty, and where the only person that he can truly trust is himself. It is possible that in the future, Soderbergh’s film may come to represent the time and place in which it was made, in which the youth of America saw opportunities fly past them, and, try as they might, were helpless to capitalize on their aspirations. And you thought this movie was about a bunch of guys swinging their dicks around.

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~ by romancinema on July 15, 2012.

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