“This is not a joke!” shouts a bare-chested, protective goggle-wearing Dallas as he holds a lit torch on the stage of Xquisite, a male strip club. Well, Dallas might not be joking, but thanks in part to the actor playing him (Matthew McConaughey), Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike is pretty funny. It’s also well-paced, a lot smarter than it has to be and expertly directed.
Mush-mouthed Channing Tatum plays Mike, a personable hunk who takes off his clothes for money. Tatum’s dialogue with the women he courts and Adam, the kid he takes under his wing (Alex Pettyfer) is relaxed, and feels almost improvised sometimes. The movie looks pretty slick, and has a predictable story about a superficial subject, so this looseness is surprising.
Adding to the unfussy feel, Soderbergh often shoots simple scenes in wide angles, once filling the frame with two conversations at once, among five different people, while maintaining clarity. He uses slow crane shots and long takes alongside moving cars to establish place, when other directors might hack out a frenetic montage. He slows down when others would speed up, even when his characters are actually on speed, reaching crisis and dancing to thumping music. (He also has a lot of fun crosscutting the glut of dance montages with over-serious reaction shots of manager Dallas.)
Soderbergh is one of our only marquee directors whose choices are consistently surprising, reminding us what auteur used to mean: a director who imposes his style on a range of different genres (like Howard Hawks), rather than an industry notable making movies from his own scripts (like James Cameron) or a micromanaging artist creating his own universe across a number of films (like Wes Anderson).
With Magic Mike, Soderbergh immerses himself in the male stripper milieu, and he’s interested in its details: the way Mike uses a dictionary to flatten the singles he gets as tips; Adam’s defense of his masculinity as he shaves his legs; the penis enlargement pump, conspicuously but slyly at work in the extreme foreground of the frame. Shooting the film himself as usual, Soderbergh’s camera focuses on a filthy nest of damp one dollar bills on Adam’s crotch, and the crisp 50 that Dallas has put on top of it: tips as a lowly employee versus a clean piece of the business. He cuts from a conversation about gas money to a shot of a safe, and pans from a confrontation at a construction site about two measly cans of stolen Pepsi over to a cul de sac lined with luxury homes.
Working from a cliché story about a goofy industry, Soderbergh employs a patient style that seems stately in comparison to the subject matter. He gives himself room to make Magic Mike about more than the familiarly thin ingénue and love stories that it's hung upon. By the time Mike tells a disapproving potential girlfriend that he is not his job, the movie has been carefully set up so that he sounds more like he’s convincing himself than her. Soderbergh has made that rarest of Hollywood narratives: one about the struggle to simply earn your own income and make a living. That’s no joke.