There is a quiet, yet confident gravitas-like quality in director Steven Soderbergh's work. He has compiled about as diverse a filmography as anyone, tackling certain films with almost a "watch me" attitude.
Soderbergh is a guy who has won an oscar, been nominated for two others, won a Palm d'Or, directed some insanely talented casts with films like Ocean's 11/12/13 and Contagion, and yet three of his last five films have been anything but predictable: The Girlfriend Experience, a film about a call-girl led by an actual porn-star (Sasha Grey) who had never acted before, Haywire, led by a female MMA star (Gina Carano) who had never acted before, and now Magic Mike. It is this willingness to try his hand at anything that make Soderbergh one of the more interesting filmmakers currently working, and that make us forgive him when he occasionally falls flat.
Obviously Magic Mike has limited theatrical appeal. Limited in that basically no guy has any interest in it, and those that do may think twice because of whatever ridicule they may expose themselves to (personally I could care less: not only am I not easily embarrassed but I watch movies for more than just what they're "about").
I'll admit, this was a theater experience unlike anything I've ever seen before. I've seen grown men dressed as countless super heroes, yet I can honestly say I've never seen a theater full of women of all ages acting like tweens waiting in line to see Justin Beiber. I was one of five guys (yes I counted) in a completely sold out theater.
As such, the scenes that will be remembered and discussed will be those that involve the ensemble male cast taking their clothes off (the scenes that I will ignore in large part for the rest of this review). That is perfectly understandable, but what's a shame is that such discussions will ignore the fact that Soderbergh actually created in large part a pretty good film, with a real story involving a real character with real conflicts. It's not perfect, but Magic Mike is better than advertised.
Many might already be aware of the fact that Channing Tatum was a stripper pre-acting career. As a quick side, I'm more willing to use the term "acting" in association with Tatum after what so far has been a pretty solid year with Haywire and 21 Jump Street (no I didn't see The Vow, but I'll let that one slide).
He puts his considerable dancing ability to work here as Magic Mike Lane, a carpenter, car detailer and aspiring furniture maker looking to establish himself and thus part ways with his career as the main attraction at a male strip club in Tampa.
There is an inner conflict to Tatum's character that actually works pretty well. We see the dark temptations of such an excessive lifestyle, a lifestyle that Tatum's Mike insists doesn't define him despite people who tell him otherwise. While Mike may not be the worst offender, this lifestyle has definitely become a big part of who he is.
His words say one thing, but his actions say another, and it is this struggle that will ultimately force Mike to take a look in the proverbial mirror. This lifestyle is also the biggest roadblock standing between Tatum and his love interest, Brooke (Cody Horn), the older sister to Adam (Pettyfer) whom Mike has reluctantly taken under his wing. While their love story feels a bit undercooked and corny at times, it does provide an additional aspect to the development of Tatum's character, which is ultimately the backbone of the plot.
Soderbergh is fully aware of why most people will come to see this film, and I promise he doesn't disappoint in that arena. But in fulfilling those expectations, he is able to retain the steady-handed quality he normally possesses. His style is immediately recognizable through filtered cinematography (Soderbergh doubles as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) and static shots, separated by perfectly fluid camera movements. The lighting in the strip club sequences is fantastic, and some of the more stylistic moments are the most memorable of the entire movie.
Tatum is pretty strong here, strong enough to remain compelling throughout. McConaughey, as club owner Dallas, steals the show in full ham-mode. McConaughey had a lot of fun with this character, and it definitely shows. Unfortunately, Pettyfer and Horn are nowhere near as strong.
In Haywire, Soderbergh showed an ability to hide the limited acting abilities of Gina Carano amongst the film's plot and style, and amongst a cast of talented counterparts who were able to pull back a bit so as not to fully expose the deficiency. Unfortunately, Horn and Pettyfer are so essential here that they aren't as easily hidden. While Pettyfer is alright at times, Horn is downright bad pretty much throughout.
Aside from Horn, the biggest weaknesses for me were certain aspects of the script, written by Reid Carolin. There are some side characters that are introduced as apparently semi-important, but who ultimately don't really do a whole lot.
The dialogue gets repetitive and borderline cheesy at times (not taking into account McConaughey's onstage lines which are done as his character within the character) and during the last third of the script, the plot quickens significantly to an almost rushed pace after a pretty deliberate first two thirds. Soderbergh and Tatum do their best to make these more important moments stick, but they aren't always successful.
Magic Mike will always be known as "that male stripper movie," but there is more to it than that. While it never loses sight of that fact, it also gives audiences a darker, more complete (albeit flawed) story than I think most would have predicted.