Thirty-year-old, hard-partying, male stripper Magic Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) doesn’t want to be doing this shit anymore when he’s 40. He’d rather be a custom furniture designer who lives on the beach with an intelligent, beautiful woman (he has no trouble, owing to his job, securing the latter quality, but the former eludes him). He’s just trying to save up enough scratch to make a down payment on a bank loan that will jump start his design career and, hopefully, an entire furniture business. He has big dreams. But he also has bad credit, so the bank won’t give him a loan. Plus, if he’s going to make his money by stripping, which he is good at, he needs to devote himself to it, which means taking part in all the drugs, partying, and orgies that come with the stripper package (Editor’s note: zing!) but can tend to obscure an entrepreneur’s ambitions. The odds are stacked against him, especially in this economy, but he’s trying.
Steven Soderbergh isn’t trying quite so hard as Mike, whose struggle against a world that doesn’t appreciate the complexities of male strippers is the ostensible subject of the director’s new film, Magic Mike. Soderbergh doesn’t have much to struggle against; he can make just about any film he wants at this point in his career, and, based on his threat to retire, seems to have already done most of them. Mike is played with ambitious energy and surprising subtlety by new movie superstar Channing Tatum, who proves with this passion project (Tatum was a real male stripper for a short time) that he’s a better actor than you’d have previously thought, although that’s certainly owing to the customary breadth Soderbergh allows the performers in his movies. Soderbergh himself, meanwhile, devotes equal care to making sure the audience is aware that all of the hope, glory, and failure they see in Mike’s life are your standard hungry-young-kid genre tropes — the stuff you saw in Boogie Nights, Showgirls, and any other film in which the sweet hooker or dancer just wants to save up and get out of this life, or whatever. Soderbergh’s working, as he often does, in movie-cliché territory, and he’s doing it on purpose, which gives him license to try out all of his stylistic ideas within a framework that’s both recognizable and alluring (who’s not curious about the Channing Tatum stripper movie?). He hopes to make these tropes more interesting with that easy way he’s always had of delivering his images sharply and directly, of keeping his storylines uncluttered and full of clever dialogue, of laying sound from the next scene over the one that’s still playing — all of those skills and tricks that Soderbergh, the great but fatally unambitious director, has always had up his sleeve.
Not only does he make out of Mike’s age-old story a movie with all of the pop and professionalism you’d expect from a veteran stylist; he also very easily slides the whole thing into his growing pantheon of works about Americans struggling with the threat of economic (or greater) ruin: The Girlfriend Experience, Contagion, Haywire, The Informant!, etc. In the past four years, he’s become the de facto voice of a generation of talented professionals (look at how exceedingly good his main characters are at their idiosyncratic jobs) getting screwed by rampant, greedy corporations: banks here, Wall Street brokers in The Girlfriend Experience, big pharma in Contagion, private military contractors in Haywire, Archer Daniels Midland in The Informant!… His list of malignant, all-powerful corporations goes back even farther than the movies he’s made since the economy tanked. But like all of them, Magic Mike uses the Downturn as watery window dressing. Soderbergh is clearly preoccupied with finding newer and sharper ways to film his scenes and to keep the momentum of his story moving at an off-kilter pace, at the expense of mining anything more deeply. Mike’s life in Tampa, Florida — in which he takes a young stripper under his wing, socks away money, haggles with his boss, chases that elegant girl he fears he’ll never get — is rendered fully, in deep focus: you can feel the muggy atmosphere and working-class vibe that Mike thrives on. Soderbergh’s so damn good at conveying the illusion that his films are meaningful that you can forget to wonder why the clichés he works with weren’t simply done away with altogether, as opposed to merely freshened up.
The best way to look at a film as striking-yet-rote as Magic Mike is as a stimulating, but not actually thought-provoking, mess. The many, many sequences of men stripping and dry-humping paying customers , for example, are all probably intended to mirror the main story line, but although I was aware enough to realize the intention, I could never pinpoint exactly what these scenes were supposed to be telling me. I kept thinking that any strip club lucky enough to have its dance concepts written by highly-paid screenwriters, choreographed by highly-paid choreographers, and danced by highly-paid Hollywood actors probably wouldn’t look much like the club in Magic Mike, which is owned by Matthew McConaughey’s flamboyant, paternal, old school stripper named Dallas. It’s all expertly crafted artifice, which again circles back to the idea that Soderbergh feels so comfortable with the clichés he’s working with because he believes that somewhere deep down the tautness of his visual style and the naturalism of the performances will transcend them. As with all of his genre endeavors, he hasn’t transcended anything: he’s just made a movie that’s watchable as hell, but far emptier.