It’s inspiring and more than a little fitting that Steven Soderbergh released both Haywire and Magic Mike this year: inspiring, because viewed back to back, the films offer an impressive display of his gifts as a director; and fitting, because both titles let their respective leading actors operate squarely in their comfort zones.  Sure, Gina Carano made it big kicking other people in the face as hard as she could, while Channing Tatum only took his clothes off for money, but Soderbergh’s operating principle in both situations is the same.  Why train an actor to fake the moves when you can just hire the real thing?

The big surprise is one of accessibility.  Who’da thunk that Haywire, with its bone-crunching fight scenes and international skullduggery, would turn out to be the year’s most esoteric thriller (it’s The Bourne Identity as directed by Michelangelo Antonioni), whereas the seamy world of man-thongs and body sweat that Magic Mike so lovingly details proves so immediately engaging?  Soderbergh pulls off a delicate balancing act; you never get the sense that he’s sugar-coating the lives his buff, mostly-nude leads, and credit must go to Tatum, whose own life provided much of the picture’s inspiration.  The scenes backstage have a workaday grind.  You see the sexual apathy, the financial hunger that drives the dancers, and when the show begins, they turn into aerobicized automatons, their glazed-over eyes standing in marked contrast to their lusty physical gyrations.  Yet – and this is key – Soderbergh isn’t in his Traffic-exposé mode.  He’s making a glossy entertainment, with a sharp, knowing script from Reid Carolin and a host of thrilling dance sequences (like he did in Haywire, Soderbergh lets movement play out in long, uninterrupted takes).  The thing has the feel of a classic Hollywood production – it’s Soderbergh’s most enjoyable picture since 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven.

In its broad strokes, Magic Mike is A Star is Born with body glitter.  Nineteen-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer) is drifting aimlessly through Tampa, Florida, when he meets “Magic” Mike Lane (Tatum), a dancer and aspiring interior decorator who initiates Adam into the world of male strip clubs.  As Adam rises through the ranks, he finds himself increasingly vulnerable to the job’s perils, and Soderbergh compares his coming-of-age to Mike’s long-dormant disenchantment with the nearly nude lifestyle.  Mike is smarter and more driven than the other guys he dances with – and he knows it – and his sweet, tentative courtship of Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn, daughter of Walt Disney Studios’ chairman Alan Horn) has him looking for an exit.  It’s that old dilemma – can Adam avoid losing his soul while Mike tries to regain his – but the lived-in milieu and Soderbergh’s clean, objective eye make the melodrama feel fresh and unpredictable.  I was reminded of Hal Ashby’s landmark Shampoo, another wry dramedy about struggling swingers; both share the same mix of grit and sympathy.

After a failed attempt to become the new Robert Pattinson (I Am Number Four, anybody?), Pettyfer finally gets a role that makes the most of his talents.  It’s a subtle piece of work – Adam is such an easy-going kid that we don’t realize how far down the rabbit-hole he is until it’s almost too late – and Pettyfer gives the part a touching naïvety.  But everyone is operating on their A-game.  Tatum is wry and funny and charismatic (between this and 21 Jump Street, he’s having a banner year), and the movie has sharp little turns from the likes of Olivia Munn, Joe Manganiello, and Matt Bomer.  Best of all is Matthew McConaughey as Xquisite’s owner and head M.C. Dallas.  For much of the film, McConaughey seems like he’s sending up his well-worn affable dreamboat persona; he’s prone to drawling “All right, all right, all right,” he plays the bongos, and he’s often shirtless.  Every so often, though, he’ll let the veil drop, and Dallas turns into something predatory and dark.  It’s an electric piece of acting – think Joel Grey from Cabaret in assless chaps.

This being Soderbergh and all, the film doesn’t operate on a wholly trivial level.  In many ways, Magic Mike is an infinitely more entertaining redo of the director’s 2008 drama The Girlfriend Experience; the two features view flesh peddling as unconventional-yet acceptable means of earning a living.  Mike’s world has its pitfalls – and if I have one problem with Magic Mike, it’s that Adam’s third-act descent into drug-abuse and self-loathing feels rote in a way that’s at odds with the freewheeling invention of the first two-thirds – but those issues are no worse than the shifting, morally flexible landscape of an American economy that left so many of its citizens adrift.

You got to hand it to Mike and his crew: at least they’re honest about what they’re selling.  At its best, Magic Mike is a clear-eyed and funny look at how tough it is to get by in America.  It is also completely and fully a Steven Soderbergh picture, and we are richer for that fact.

Warner Bros’ Blu-ray presents the film in a wonderful HD transfer.  Shooting on digital, Soderbergh achieves a remarkably film-like look (the use of an anamorphic lens greatly helps), and the disc faithfully replicates the depth and texture of the image.  The Blu-ray also has an immersive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Unfortunately, like the director’s recent Haywire and Contagion discs, supplements are in scant supply.  There’s a too-short making-of featurette (“Backstage on Magic Mike”), the “Dance Play Mode” which plays all the dance sequences in one twenty-minute chunk, and extended cuts of three dance setpieces.  I miss the Steven Soderbergh who gave us exhaustive behind-the-scenes materials; I hope he returns some day.

Magic Mike is so much better than its cheesecake trailer suggested.  The lesson is simple:  in Soderbergh we trust.

Magic Mike streets on October 23rd.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Also – a brief heads-up:  Warner is bringing The Dark Knight Rises to Blu-ray Combo Pack or Digital Download on December 4th.  Click HERE for a special Blu-ray sizzle video.

Home Culture Movie Review: MAGIC MIKE Is Steven Soderbergh's Wry, Amusing Look at Male...