Steven Soderbergh is a chameleon.
His films are more experimental in choice than most other filmmakers. All are radically different (with the “Ocean’s 11” sequels as an exception) from each other as he searches for something unique to either say or technically achieve. Some, like "Sex, Lies and Videotape," and "Bubble" push boundaries and step outside the Hollywood box, while others like last fall’s “Contagion” and the “Ocean’s” movies are mainstream cash cows.
“Magic Mike,” Soderbergh’s third film in less than a year (his other was “Haywire”), is another one of those experiments. It’s an unusual project for the director , but it achieves little more than putting a new, albeit mediocre, spin on the usually female-dominated stripper film by focusing on male dancers instead.
“Magic Mike” is a run-of-the-mill character study about two different men; Mike (Channing Tatum), an aging stripper who struggles to save enough cash to leave the business and become an entrepreneur and Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a lost, impressionable 19 year-old who has tunnel vision for the easy cash, drugs and women that come with working the ‘pole.’ But Soderbergh often forgets the drama that binds the story together and sets his focus instead on pelvic thrusts, chiseled abs and lengthy dance scenes.
When we’re able to focus on the drama and not the stage, Soderbergh enters “Erin Brockovich” territory. Channing Tatum gives a very buoyant performance as Mike, easy-going and flippant one moment, sad and tortured the next. Mike is stuck in the spin cycle of a life he wants to leave. He secretly wants to escape the clutches of his power-hungry mentor Dallas (a role perfectly suited for and performed by Matthew McConaughey), Mike sees Adam’s straight-laced, bookish sister Brooke (Cody Horn) as a means to get out. Adam, on the other hand, goes down the rabbit hole into the predictable world of drugs and crime.
We’ve seen this story many times and the only thing really new Soderbergh brings are the insertion of male strip shows throughout (For those concerned, you only see naked butts). The shows may be the film’s highest appeal, which are just some pretty slick hip hop routines that can be seen in any given music video. Even though the dances are really well choreographed and sometimes entertaining, they bring the story to a screeching halt. After the first four, it becomes exhausting and ultimately bogs down the movie. The film is under two hours but feels more like two and a half.
Soderbergh does bring out the best from Tatum and McConaughey. Tatum has really come to prove himself over the past year and “Magic Mike” is his best performance yet. And the dude can dance, too. (Channing Tatum was a stripper before his acting career) McConaughey, though, is electric. He owns Dallas, with his thick southern drawl and pompous cowboy attitude.
It’s good to have another Soderbergh movie, and one that’s completely different from anything he’s done before. But beneath the magic, “Mike” is ultimately meh.