Steven Soderbergh has made a career out of confounding expectations. In the two decades since accidentally ushering in the age of the indie movie with 1989 Sundance sensation sex, lies, and videotape, Soderbergh has proven himself America’s busiest, most adventurous A-lister, biding his time between hits like Traffic and the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy with whatever sort of films sounded like fun to make. In the last two years he’s made a documentary on the life of late monologist and friend Spalding Gray (And Everything Is Going Fine), the scariest film of 2011 (Contagion), and January’s Haywire, a playfully convoluted espionage thriller showcasing the kickboxing talents of former MMA fighter Gina Carano alongside the getting-kickboxed talents of various screen heartthrobs.
So at this point there’s no telling which Soderbergh would show up for Magic Mike, but the potential seemed there for something genuinely subversive. Inspired in part by star Channing Tatum’s experiences as a 19-year-old exotic dancer, the film is being sold as the girls’ night event of the summer —and brilliantly so, leading a 73-percent-female audience to give Soderbergh the best opening weekend of his career. But it seemed likely there’d be something deeper hiding beneath all the six-packs and banana hammocks. What might the intellectually engaged director of Che or The Girlfriend Experience have to say about the profession and its culture? What consciousness would he bring to the rare presentation of the female sexual gaze? And what’s that reversal got to say about exploitation?
In short I was totally asking for Soderbergh to make me feel silly for trying to nail him down, and Magic Mike is as frothy as rebukes get. Tatum plays the titular handyman-by-day, stripper-by-night who introduces a college dropout (Alex Pettyfer) to Tampa’s exotic male dancing scene. And that’s about it. The less stripper-y parts of the movie are an easygoing character study: of Pettyfer’s “The Kid,” living out his sad teenage ideals of freedom, and of Magic Mike, for whom that lifestyle and the according low credit scores have started to interfere with grown-up dreams.
Tatum is already coming off of the year’s biggest breakout performance, in March’s 21 Jump Street (not to mention Haywire, or news that the G.I. Joe sequel will be held back nine months while they boost the Tatum quotient), and he seals the deal as Mike, whose best intentions we never doubt. Having originated the project based on a period of his own life, it follows that Tatum would at least be convincing as a pretty-boy stripper, but he’s plenty funny here, too, and continues to flash real personality behind his bucket-headed good looks. And while he’s got chemistry enough with a psychology graduate (Olivia Munn) and the Kid’s poker-faced sister (Cody Horn), it’s Xquisite male revue owner/operator Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) who affects Magic Mike the most, perhaps in the same ways Mike will someday affect the Kid.
Magic Mike seems intentionally lighter-than-light, forever inching toward cliche—drug dealers! overdoses! open marriages!—only to pull back from any of the repercussions we expect from more generically cautionary movies. To whatever extent male exotic dancing can be considered provocative, in fact, the story’s soft dramatic arc benefits the subject matter in interesting ways. I may have expected Magic Mike to have something serious to say about stripping, but that’s not what the movie’s about, and screenwriter Reid Carolin is careful not to give in to moralistic dramatic conventions. Instead, the story floats along on the strength of what’s going on inside these beautiful people’s heads.
Except, of course, when it’s about what’s going on in their pants. As worthy as the film is in general, there’s no denying that Tatum, Pettyfer, and McConaughey’s greased abdomens are the big draw, and showtime at the Xquisite gentlewoman’s club—particularly when Tatum, an even better dancer than he is an actor, is onstage—is by far the biggest thing (pun acknowledged) to recommend Magic Mike. Still dedicated to his low-key artsy thing elsewhere in the film, Soderbergh shoots the exotic-dancing sequences with a gleeful sheen typically reserved for his Ocean’s movies. Here he works sincere magic out of the silly pageantry of the strip show, melding dance, lust, and suspense in a strikingly camera-friendly way.
And buried in these montages—reliably hooted and hollered at by a theater full of women at a Sunday matinee—is as much as Soderbergh should have to say about exotic dancing. The dance sequences are exhilarating, because neither the audience nor the dancers are being condescended to. (See one dancer’s encounter with a mildly overweight client, played as a poignant aside where a stupider film would have gone for a mean laugh.) The result is as joyful a sexuality as we usually see in mainstream film: A spectacle those of us outside the target audience can appreciate, that also gives the rest of the lucky ladies and gents something worthy of their hooting and hollering.