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Magic Mike

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

Here’s a shocker; Magic Mike is a really, really good film.

Can you think of a more uneven contemporary director than Steven Soderbergh? He bounces back and forth between the utterly commercial and the resolutely personal, and has complete control over all his work, which has only increased over the years.

After his dazzling debut with Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1987, he went on to the interesting misfire Kafka (1991), and then to the superb but utterly forgotten Depression era drama King of the Hill (1993), which remains one of his finest films, but didn’t even make it to DVD in the United States.The late monologist Spalding Gray appeared in a memorable support role in that film, and in 1996 Soderbergh tackled Gray’s Anatomy, Spalding Gray’s most famous theatrical piece, which is more or less a filmed record (thankfully) of Gray in performance.

Then came the crime comedy Out of Sight (1998), then the down and dirty crime drama The Limey (1999), using archival footage from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) to flesh out the narrative’s back-story, then the rather conventional biopic Erin Brockovich (2000), and the overheated and underbaked drug thriller Traffic (2000), for which he surprisingly won an Academy Award as Best Director, and a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (2002), the experimental 40s period piece The Good German (2006), as well as the absolutely commercial and utterly uninteresting Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13 (2001, 2004, 2007).

I’m leaving some films out, but starting with Traffic, he also functioned as his own Director of Photography, most notably on the two-part Che, under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews; oddly, he later wished that he hadn’t made the film at all, an interesting public admission to say the least. And since 2006, he’s been editing most of films under the additional pseudonym of May Ann Bernard. In short, he’s all over the place, from the most conventional films to the utterly experimental, as in his 1996 film Schizopolis. When you go to see a Soderbergh film, you literally have no idea what you’re going to get going in.

So it comes as something of a shock that Magic Mike (2012) is so very, very good. This is even truer when one factors in the deliberately misleading trailers, selling the film as nothing more than a male strip show, with beefcake as the primary draw. There’s that, of course, in this tale of Michael “Magic Mike” Lane (the stunningly athletic Channing Tatum), who falls in love with Brooke (Cody Horn), the sister of Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a young man whom he befriends on a construction site and pulls into “the life” as a male stripper in a sleazy club managed by the Machiavellian Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, who seems to be making a film every five minutes these days, all of them exceptional — Killer Joe, Bernie, Mud, many others).

The choreography is fantastic; when Tatum is dancing, it seems almost like a special effect rather than straight photography; he’s a dazzling performer, clearly using his own history as a male stripper to create an utterly authentic atmosphere, and as Adam, Pettyfer is equally convincing, moving from confused kid (his nickname in the film is “The Kid”) to drug-soaked lifer with skill and ease. Another interesting aspect of Magic Mike is that while most of the action centers on Dallas’ strip club, the audience members fade into the background, and the real interest is not only the backstage story, and the lives of the male dancers, but also Brooke’s reaction to the scene – and Cody Horn is simply fantastic in the role.

What’s also odd is that though Channing Tatum, who also co-produced Magic Mike from a script by his writing partner Reid Carolin, is undeniably the main focus of the film (the script being, at least in some part, autobiographical), Brooke is a major part of the film as well, and Soderbergh, editing as Mary Ann Bernard and lensing as Peter Andrews, hangs on her face for long sections of the film, as many of the key sequences play off-screen – we’re witness to her reaction, nothing more. The film’s soundtrack is also an exceptional mix of dance hits old and new, all of which really fit the images, rather than simply accompanying them, or worse, propping them up.

By the end of the film, Brooke’s brother Adam is lost to “the life” while Mike escapes, and starts a relationship with Cody, which is the one redemptive note in the film. While it’s a somewhat downbeat piece, in which nobody really seems to be having fun, and money rules everything, it also has a solidly moralistic center, and basically does everything it can to demonstrate to the viewer that the whole strip club business is shady, dangerous, and a dead end; the only thing one can do is escape from it, unless you’re like Dallas, a ringleader on the way to Hell. Superbly shot, deftly edited, and remarkably well acted — McConaughey seems to absolutely inhabit his role as Dallas, alternately threatening and mesmeric, dominating every scene he’s in with effortless skill – Magic Mike is so much more than you probably expect, so I urge you to go see it as soon as you can.

Another interesting fact to consider is that Nicolas Winding Refn was originally attached as director, and while he probably would have made a bold, colorful film with the material, I can’t help but think that Soderbergh gave the project greater depth. I try to see everything that opens on the grounds that you really can’t trust anyone’s judgment except your own in evaluating any work of art, no matter what the medium, and so I see a lot of junk. Magic Mike just might be the best film of 2012 so far, which is what I thought about Bernie until I saw this. And Matthew McConaughey’s in both of them.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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