In the past, Steven Soderbergh has made movies featuring porn stars (Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience), MMA fighters (Gina Carano in Haywire) and average small-town residents (the cast of Bubble) into stylish, inventive works that subvert expectations and draw out the strengths of their nontraditional cast members and settings. So if anyone were going to make a work of art out of a movie about male strippers starring human Ken doll Channing Tatum, Soderbergh would be the guy to do it. That Magic Mike is often compelling and even beautiful despite its bland script and flat acting is a testament to Soderbergh’s abilities behind the camera, although he ultimately can’t overcome the deficiencies in the writing and performances.
Magic Mike starts out with two scenes that demonstrate the movie’s greatest strengths: First, Matthew McConaughey delivers an amusingly irreverent onstage monologue as Dallas, the aging exotic dancer who runs Tampa, Florida-based male strip-show Xquisite, and is consistently the movie’s most entertaining and charming character. Then, Soderbergh uses mesmerizing long takes and striking wide shots to introduce the title character (Tatum) as he wakes up from a night of debauchery, engages in playful banter with his latest bed partner and shows off his impressive unclothed physique.
Those two moments promise a looser, more impressionistic movie than Soderbergh ends up delivering, though, and the paint-by-numbers script by Reid Carolin (Tatum’s producing partner) meanders through stock elements including a young recruit (Alex Pettyfer) getting caught up in the fast lifestyle of drugs and women and Mike’s protracted romance with a boring medical assistant (Cody Horn). Despite their good looks, Tatum, Pettyfer and Horn are all seriously charisma-deficient, and McConaughey’s goofy grin can only make up for so much.
Soderbergh’s creative shot composition and off-kilter pacing elevate some of the story’s prosaic elements, but he doesn’t take enough narrative or stylistic chances with the material. Magic Mike turns out to be an unremarkable story of excess and remorse, and even Soderbergh can’t make it into much more than that.