These days, Steven Soderbergh's career seems to have reached the end point of a slow, insistent turn towards a path rarely traveled in Hollywood. He's making wide-release films with studio money that exemplify 21st century D.I.Y filmmaking ethos - that is, movies guaranteed commercial treatment that feel as if they were made by one dude with a (ridiculously high-end) camera and some friends. And more often than not, that's practically the case. His latest film Magic Mike is like an informal companion piece to 2009's The Girlfriend Experience, a sharply observed portrait of the business of sexuality - this time set in a Tampa Bay where the males are the performers and the females the customers - in which the modus operandi is roughly the same: co-opt a subject (nightlife, sex), a hot-topic star (Channing Tatum here, Sasha Grey in TGF), and a genre (dramedy/dance film here, drama/prostitution exposé in TGF) from the universal interests of the masses in order to gain financing, and proceed to make probing, non-judgmental, humble cinema. Soderbergh strikes me as a filmmaker set upon providing gentle forms of rebellion to the reductive, predictable, conformist fare taking place elsewhere in Hollywood, not through grand gestures and cynical statements, but rather through down-to-earth socioeconomic detail and an impassioned curiosity for the various subjects he films.
Here, that subject is male stripping, and Soderbergh's characteristic lack of bias is especially impressive given the stigma surrounding such a profession. Magic Mike portrays the business of male stripping for what it is - a business, just as worthy of exploration as any other pastime humans choose to embark on, not as a target of ridicule or as easy fodder for girls-night-out exploitation. The film sees stripping both as an exaggerated extension of the primitive urge for sex and sociality and as a lucrative option for aimless but well-meaning twentysomethings forced into odd jobs by the reality of the American economy. Such is the case for Mike (Tatum), a charismatic, self-described "entrepreneur" with scattered ambition, as well as Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a bored 19-year-old who ruined his college football career after a misguided fight with his coach. Mike's already an established hunk at the local male revue (they call him "Magic Mike") and he enjoys plenty of sleepless nights and late afternoons waking up next to nameless females. He doesn't see the fault of his ways, but rather exudes the kind of self-confidence and jovial solipsism that is so pervasive in the modern post-collegiate world, where relative success in a small pond translates to a feeling of being on top of the world. It's precisely that feeling that encourages him to make Alex his project.
It's not that Mike is good-for-nothing, or that Soderbergh is framing him as a villain. In fact, it's quite the opposite. From his ostentatious SUV that he prides himself on by keeping perpetually "new," to his casual but invested relationship with his booty call Joanna (Olivia Munn), to his ridiculous future goal of launching a business of custom furniture assembled from junk parts, everything about Mike is both convincingly flawed and convincingly real. When he senses Alex needs to come out of his shell, his decision to befriend him stems, yes, from a genuine kindness, but mostly from a subconscious desire to increase his sex appeal through an act of charity. The film is remarkably true to the ways that social gamesmanship occurs through bravado; significantly, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the megalomaniacal owner of the strip club, is the most obnoxious of all the film's central characters, but in his own way, he displays a tight control of every social situation he's in. (It's the perfect role for McConaughey, who hasn't been this expertly sleazy since Dazed and Confused.) Soderbergh, ever-alert to the process of how things can rapidly change for better or worse (see: Contagion), conveys the transformation of Alex from a go-nowhere stud with a good Schwarzenegger impression and a motherly sister (Cody Horn) to a drugged-up, testosterone-fueled dancer who wouldn't admit he cares about anything but partying and women, and yet there remains a sympathetic core to his character.
The majority of the film's astute, unfussy observations of modern life emerge during its narrative setup. Among them: Alex reveals that he got the same construction job as Mike through Craigslist, and shortly after, we see in the corner of the frame as the boss denies an employee a second soda for lunch, one of his regulations for a non-union, under-the-table gig; later, when Alex successfully pleas for a +1 at one of Mike's regular nightclub digs, he asks naïvely upon receiving his first drink, "Is this free?" Both are minor nuances in Soderbergh's mise en scène, but they add volume to the film's sense of verisimilitude. As Magic Mike enters its third act, it starts to shoehorn its characters into somewhat expected molds (Adam's spiral out of control, Mike's escape from the stripper business as a form of heroism, Adam's sister as a romantic saving grace) and integrates standard genre tropes into its plot (a trippy, color-coded party, a drug deal gone bad, a chance at upward mobility with the prospect of the business moving to Miami). But at the same time, this mash-up of the ordinary and the iconic, the spontaneous and the schematic, the monotonous and the escapist, is exemplified constantly in the lives of these strippers, who are used to shifting between normalcy and performance. It's built into the core of the film. The sadness is that Mike has lost the ability to distinguish between the two modes, despite his desperate efforts to shake off his play persona. Among its many strengths, Magic Mike conveys the whirlwind effect that occurs when standards of obligation collide with transient pleasures.
Again, Soderbergh acts as his own DP here (another sign of his mild independence), and it's integral to the unique texture of his latest films; nothing else would have made a globetrotting epic like Contagion feel like a small-scale experiment, or The Girlfriend Experience a Godardian essay, or Magic Mike a feel-good Aaron Katz movie. Soderbergh's always seeking an angle that will problematize the action onscreen, that will infuse a sense of chaos into the bloodstream of a scene. In night clubs, he shoots faces from beneath, letting flares from the dancing overhead lights obstruct the image. In the strip club, in addition to presenting the dance moves legibly in extended wide shots, he'll mix in a strange beneath-the-glass-floor perspective that recalls a similar shot in Bela Tarr's Almanac of Fall. After one dramatic punchline, he cuts not to a clear shot that will capitalize on the joke, but rather to a collage of unfocused neon lights that only gradually reveal a setting. It's all a way of making a prosaic portrait feel anything but controlled and boxed-in, as well as a way of reflecting the spontaneity of the lives onscreen. Even when it's obvious where the film is headed, this visual experimentation brings a notion of imbalance, making Magic Mike an exciting thing to behold.