A version of this review appeared in The Age, July 28, 2012.
If Steven Soderbergh makes good on his frequent threats to retire, it's hard to imagine who could fill his shoes. Nobody else in Hollywood has the bravado – or perhaps the desire – to keep making these flippant, weirdly distanced art movies, which resist the convention of a sympathetic hero who wins the day. Even in the rousing action-thriller Haywire, the kickboxer Gina Carano is less a personality than an abstract force: in a sense, the subject of the film is simply her running battle to take control of her own narrative.
Though Magic Mike is Soderbergh's most relaxed, accessible film in ages, the hero (Channing Tatum) is another of his lab rats – assigned certain strengths and attractions, then released into a controlled environment to see how he fares. Again, the character is slightly displaced from the centre of his own movie: in the early scenes, Mike is simply the old hand who inducts the 19-year-old Kid (Alex Pettyfer) into the shadowy world of male striptease. Later, the spotlight falls on Matthew McConaughey's hilariously flashy performance as Dallas, the manager of the Florida club where the boys do their thing: half preacher, half pimp, and all Texas smarm.
By contrast, Tatum's star aura springs from the laidback, crafty way he deploys his meathead jock persona. Only gradually do we perceive Mike's vulnerability: hoping to be recognised as more than just a pretty face and a six-pack, he describes himself as an “entrepreneur” and dreams of marketing his own line of custom-made furniture (the most dubious follow-your-dream subplot since Anna Faris' awful sculptures in What's Your Number?).
The film plays Mike's “tragedy” for both pathos and laughs, skirting the misogynist implication that men are automatically degraded when they become professional objects of the female gaze. Splitting the difference between the two meanings of “burlesque,” the strip numbers resemble drag acts, in which traditional macho symbols – uniforms, pistols, bulging crotches – are made lewdly comic rather than seriously seductive.
Soderbergh tries to get a bit of documentary reality into each of his projects, if only to generate the friction that lets his creativity spark. In Haywire, he ensured Careno had plenty of opportunity to display her martial arts skills; here, he goes out of his way to prove that Tatum – a former stripper in real life – is doing all his own dance routines. In both cases, the action sequences are often shot from a distance with the camera locked into position, so the wide screen resembles a squash court where the performers bounce off the walls.
It is tempting to see Magic Mike as two films in one: the first a crowd-pleasing dramedy about a lovable loser, the second a chance for Soderbergh to amuse himself with surprising visual choices and transitions between scenes (as usual, he serves as his own cinematographer and editor, crediting himself under different names). While Mike and company strut their stuff to crowds of whooping women, the film avoids seeming either thrilled or repulsed by their desperate salesmanship; if an attitude to the subject-matter is implied, it has to be deduced from this apparent detachment.
Like Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience (2009), Magic Mike is ultimately less about sexuality in particular than about capitalism in general. For all the perks of the hedonistic stripper lifestyle, there's an unbridgeable class gap between Mike and his lover Joanna (Olivia Munn) a psychology student completing her college degree. Chump that he is, Mike views his carefully maintained body as a solid business asset; similarly, he longs to establish an authentic identity by building tables and chairs with his own hands. Though Soderbergh has his own kind of pride in his craft, he treats such nostalgia for “substance” with relentless irony. He's happy to stay on the surface of the image, grooving on the multiple focal points and the flashing lights.