In recent years, Steven Soderbergh has proven himself to be master of casting. From a group of nonprofessionals in small-town examination Bubble to porn-star Sasha Grey as the expensive call-girl in the recession drama The Girlfriend Experience to MMA fighter Gina Carano in the genre-examining Haywire. Add to that list Channing Tatum (who also had a small role in Haywire) in Magic Mike as the titular stripper/entrepreneur who takes the unambitious slacker Adam under his wing. Why does Tatum work so well in this role? Tatum pitched the idea of a film about his experiences as a male stripper, and while Soderbergh was not the first choice (Nicolas Winding Refn was), their involvement in Haywire led him to the helm. So while this time Tatum was not actually cast by Soderbergh, that it is Tatum essentially playing himself instead of some other actor gives Magic Mike believability in its silliness. There are a few extended dance sequences that are among the funniest scenes of the year, and Tatum’s dancing is a combination of pure strength and athleticism delivered with a confidence second to none. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s hard not to be impressed by the charisma and, dare I say it—skill—on display.
For those familiar with Soderbergh’s more recent, less commercial films, it will take about two shots for this to look like a Soderbergh film. Is there colorful lighting treading the line between expressionistic and naturalistic? Yes. Is it a medium-long shot from an angle that allows for deep space, should it be necessary? Yes. And when you get to the end, you will see Soderbergh credited with cinematography and editing under his usual pseudonyms. And thus, it’s Soderbergh who elevates the routine tale to something enjoyable and even memorable. When Michael Lane lets Adam into a club as a favor, they quickly become Magic Mike and The Kid (Alex Pettyfer), and while Michael claims he dances (and works construction, and a couple other things) so he can earn enough money to start a custom-furniture business, Adam does it for the attention, the girls, and the money. As you expect, The Kid grows and grows as a performer, and he gets mixed up with the bad guys of the group, taking drugs and starting fights and worrying his sister Joanna (Olivia Munn), who feels more secure because of the perks that come with romantic involvement with Michael.
Rise and fall of the young performer, apprentice becomes the master, romance; it’s all been done before. It’s Tatum’s charismatic and humanizing performance and Soderbergh’s direction that make Magic Mike as good as it is. The first hour of the film plays almost like a music video, with the strippers (and particularly Matthew McConaughey as the troupe’s leader) and constant backing tracks providing shots of energy to the already-colorful world of dance and performance. Soderbergh’ works hard to make the exhibitionism every bit as glorifying as the performers want it to be. As the stage is drenched in blues and whites while the rest of the room remains dark and moody, the dual-life of Magic Mike (who is the more compelling of the two leads) finds a physical embodiment. When Michael says he’s only Magic Mike when he’s on stage, we believe him, because Tatum’s performance and Soderbergh’s aesthetics give us no other choice. There’s nothing radical at work here, but that we find ourselves enjoying the exhibitionism in one world completely separate from an honest investment in character is a testament to just how well these elements are executed.
The film falters a bit in its latter half, as the dual point-of-view structure loses its effectiveness as it becomes more obvious, and while Adam and The Kid become one personality, the film forgets about the more compelling Michael/Magic Mike conflict. It becomes a gloomy trip filled with drugs and violence and danger that gives the film an urgency that takes away its charm. By the time it finds its groove again, it is so short on time that it has to phone in the ending, but while the chaos takes over and the humor disappears, Magic Mike also gets an aesthetic makeover that gets lost in no man’s land, caught somewhere between preserving the fun that came before and following its characters down into an uncontrolled and frightening hole. It’s a short detour, but it’s a distracting one. Still, that it goes exactly where we know it must and still catches us off guard is proof how effective and enjoyable everything that came before was.
Still, as the characters learn early, even one bad act cannot ruin the whole show. Magic Mike is so undeniably fun and so comfortable with what it is that the best moments make clichés feel new. Its look is top-notch, its humor among the funniest of the year, and Tatum’s performance so natural and irresistible that the whole film becomes irresistible.