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Magic Mike movie review: Soderbergh’s striptease

Director Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike is apparently loosely based on the real-life raunch to riches story of its star, former male stripper and current Hollywood beefcake of the month Channing Tatum. Perhaps his back story as a himbo in the flesh trade goes some way in explaining his strange sounding name, though if you don’t know what a “channing” is or how to do it to somebody, one assumes it is best not to ask.

From a screenplay by debutante Reid Carolin, drifty and convention-aware in the manner most Soderbergh films are, Magic Mike works with a Boogie Nights-esque structure, showcasing a glowing cash-strewn catwalk empire before eventually urinating all over it. The story builds a castle of sand, smut and debauchery in the first half then takes the gloss away, brick by brick, in the second, to expose the shonky world of stripping as the vacuous culture we assumed it would be.

Mike (Tatum) isn’t the sharpest knife in the draw but smart enough to know that his days as a stripper are numbered. Mike wants to make a go of it in the furniture business but finds the task of freeing himself from the sweaty shackles of his well-oiled occupation fraught with difficulty.

Diametrically opposed to his desire to “get out” is a new kid’s desire to get in; Adam (Alex Pettyfer) is taken under Mike’s wing, learns to dance like a pro in about half a minute (courtesy of a “make love to the mirror” pep talk from Matthew McConaughey) and experiences the best and worst of the biz in a conveniently condensed period of time.

The strip scenes are technically proficient in the manner of a vividly captured deli of muscle and skin, rambunctious women ever squealing for fresh flesh, though there is a sense Soderbergh doesn’t want to get too entrenched in the spectacle.

Magic Mike doesn’t have Boogie’s dynasty-toppling magnitude and nor does it aspire to. Soderbergh’s quasi slice-of-life approach remains, consistent with his style, curiously detached from his subjects, preferring to observe them through a proverbial pane of glass than to wallow in their lives and stories. This can be felt from the early days of his work, such as Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) through to last year’s Contagion (2011), both of which are driven more by intellectual games than studying people involved in them. There are exceptions, such as The Limey (1999) and Erin Brockovich (2000).

Matthew McConaughey, with limited screen time and a handful of conversations, finds a way to turn the economy of Carolin’s writing and the restrictiveness of Soderbergh’s direction into virtues. His character, the strip club owner who also dabbles in the fleshier side of his trade, is a familiar one: the businessman in a fickle industry, chasing his tail, who understands the clock is ticking and believes that a brighter sky lingers just over the horizon. It’s an excellent performance with, so to speak, no fat on the bone.

It’s the cautious and clinical distance between Soderbergh and his characters in Magic Mike that both tightly controls the performances and restricts the capacity for his actors to resonate. Channing Tatum struggles with “serious” acting, so Soderbergh cunningly constructs the film around him, hoping audiences won’t pay too much attention to his star’s obvious limitations.

Intellectual distancing between form and content is Soderbergh’s core problem as a director. Soderbergh is smart, deliberately contextualises people in thoughtful ways, rarely panders to expectations and isn’t comfortable leaning on conventions. But he tends to see his characters as cogwheels in a much larger machine, to the point at which they frequently appear half-formed, and such is the case in Mike.

While limited by Tatum’s powers of expression, Soderbergh captures the shame of his protagonist’s day-to-day life effectively — more vividly than Michael Fassbender in, well, Shame – the vacuousness of his existence effectively paired with a desire to break free and a restricted capacity to do so.

Magic Mike convincingly juxtaposes viewer envy (smoking hot bods!) with sympathy for skin surface existence. But the film keeps its clothes on, raw and vivid glimpses of its characters few and far between. Soderbergh doesn’t love or hate them and is reluctant to judge or discriminate, which makes the viewing experience a little like a zoo, where there is an inherent disconnect between what we’re seeing and what is actually taking place behind the glass.

Magic Mike’s Australian theatrical release date: July 26, 2012. 

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