For the last dozen or so years I’ve seen every (non-doc) Steven Soderbergh film in the theatre but haven’t loved one of his movies since “Solaris” in 2002, which for a filmmaker who can turn out 2 films in a year is an especially long time. So consider me as surprised as anyone to say that the male stripper dramedy “Magic Mike,” is the best Steven Soderbergh film in a decade. Loosely inspired by Channing Tatum’s brief stint as a stripper, it seems an odd choice for Soderbergh, even with a career built on odd choices. The story goes that Tatum told the director about his experiences and Soderbergh responded immediately saying that it was a world he’d never seen depicted onscreen and if Tatum would write the film, he would direct it.
While Tatum didn’t end up writing the script, his friend Reid Carolin did and crafted a surprising, funny and all-around entertaining story about the world of male exotic dancers. (Trust me, I’m as surprised as you are.) In the film Tatum plays “Magic” Mike, a more experienced dancer who befriends newcomer Adam “The Kid” (Alex Pettyfer) and teaches him the ropes. While Mike has ambitions of designing furniture as well as several other businesses, Adam is reveling in having a job, some money and the attention of hundreds of screaming women. But as “Boogie Nights” taught us, the party has to end at some point and darker side of the business (drugs, general weirdness) starts to emerge. Though things don’t get quite so dark, there are definitely consequences for the characters to counterbalance the good times.
Matthew McConaughey is his ‘alrightalrightalright’ best as club owner Dallas, while Joe Manganiello, Matthew Bomer and Olivia Munn all make the most of their limited screentime. Only Cody Horn as “The Kid“‘s sister and Mike’s love interest comes off as a little flat which makes the ending not quite as strong as it could have been. The hardest thing to explain to people - other than yes, I saw “Magic Mike” and yes, I saw it alone - is that it’s actually a good movie and not really the film depicted in the ads. Warner Bros. must have had a tough time selling the film (and did a remarkable job turning it into a huge hit) but they had to mislead the audience a bit. Though it does deliver in the dancing sequences which are mostly hilarious, it’s not the campy parade of beefcakes promised by the trailers.
At his mainstream best, like “Oceans 11,” “Traffic,” or “Erin Brockovich,” Soderbergh can be an extremely effective filmmaker, elevating genre material above what’s expected of it and this is a prime example of that. His greatest strengths are on display here, creating an ensemble comic drama where the story beats feel totally organic. Never did I feel the oncoming act breaks or the obvious setups, for two hours, I didn’t know what would happen next which is how films should be. He even managed to find something interesting about Channing Tatum which, prior to “21 Jump Street” (where he was an unexpected comedy MVP), nobody thought was possible. Soderbergh may be on the verge of retirement but “Magic Mike” proves that the multiplex still needs him.