As Steven Soderbergh gets closer to the retirement he swears will be happening next year, it's tempting for us who love his movies to wish he'd go out with one last major opus, some sort of legacy-defining masterpiece. So maybe that's why it's good that he clearly doesn't seem interested in doing any such thing. Many of his recent films—Haywire, Contagion, The Informant!—have very much been the work of a guy happily bouncing from one project to another, enjoying each immensely but not taking anything too seriously. While all of us might be devastated that he's walking away from directing, his movies have been as loose and energized as they've ever been. Even when he was plotting the destruction of our species in Contagion, Soderbergh looked like he was having a ball. How could someone quit making movies who's having this much fun?
He's having a lark yet again with his latest, Magic Mike, although one of the best things about it is that it doesn't show any interest in mocking its subject matter, the world of an all-male strip club. Soderbergh's always been accused of being a brainy, somewhat chilly filmmaker—when he makes a movie starring porn star Sasha Grey, it's the decidedly un-sexy (and pretty terrific) The Girlfriend Experience—but it's hard to think of a movie in which he loves his characters as much as he does with Magic Mike. The affection is contagious.
The film stars Channing Tatum, whose own misadventures as a teen stripper inspired the storyline. He plays Mike, a hunky, charismatic 30-year-old living in Tampa, although the way he conducts his life, it might as well be Never Never Land. Yes, he's the boy who doesn't want to grow up, loving his occasional hookups with a no-strings-attached grad student (Olivia Munn) and dreaming about different entrepreneurial schemes, including one involving a company that designs furniture from discarded items. (It's a sign of Magic Mike's deep sympathy that we're not meant to laugh at Mike's aspirations. He takes them seriously, and so we look on like worried parents, hoping for the best.) For money, though, Mike strips on the weekends at Xquisite, where he's the club's main attraction. Into that milieu walks a 19-year-old (Alex Pettyfer) whom Mike takes under his wing, dubbing him the Kid.
The first half of Magic Mike is as euphoric an hour of film as Soderbergh has ever produced. He's done cerebral (Che) and masterful (Traffic) and insanely entertaining (Ocean's Eleven) before, but the way that Soderbergh confidently takes us into the world of male strippers has an air of Altman to it; we glide around the confines of the Xquisite, learning the pecking order and the lay of the land. Ruling this particular kingdom is Dallas, the club's owner who, as played by an ebullient Matthew McConaughey, is a snake-oil salesman you want to believe, no matter the desperate urgency that flickers across his smiling eyes.
As for the film's strip-club performances, there's very little camp shtick to be seen. Soderbergh has said that he wanted to model Magic Mike after Saturday Night Fever, and indeed he's tapped into the pure pleasure of movement, sharing with the Travolta movie an understanding of how losing oneself in dancing can be an addictive high. Even though the Xquisite numbers put Tatum and his crew in ridiculous get-up after ridiculous get-up—the sexy cop, the sexy fireman, the sexy cowboy—we are quickly given to understand that these are the habits of this particular subculture. Soderbergh can sometimes hide behind a thin veneer of ironic detachment, but he doesn't with Magic Mike, and it's appropriate for the material: We have to understand what a rush it is for Mike to perform in front of these salivating women so that we can better appreciate how hard it is for him to let the gig (and the money) go.
Tatum remains a bit wooden as an actor, but in Magic Mike he's as carefree as he's ever been. Beyond his moves and his physique, Mike is an excellent talker, and Tatum sells the character's surfer-dude charm. Screenwriter Reid Carolin, who's also Tatum's producing partner, doesn't give Mike a lot of witty, pithy dialogue, instead laying a framework of easygoing banter that Tatum knocks out of the park. There's an improvisational flair to the way Tatum approaches the character, particularly in his flirty exchanges with Cody Horn, who plays the Kid's older, suspicious sister.
In the Ocean's trilogy, Soderbergh showed a knack for making the extremely complicated seem as if it had been dashed off with flair—he was the ace magician who never revealed his secrets. In a different way, Magic Mike is its own splendid trick: There's a freedom and gracefulness to its unfussy, just-screwing-around approach that makes the film seem like something made over a long, fun weekend. But if you notice Soderbergh's superb long takes and his ability to establish characters in just a few lines, you'll realize there's real craft in every frame.
There's also something deeper going on beneath the striptease. Just as with The Girlfriend Experience—a movie seemingly about a high-priced call girl that was really about power and financial uncertainty—Magic Mike is at its core a story about how people look for quick escapes when reality becomes too oppressive. Mike needs to learn to grow up, but he's not the only character facing that dilemma: Just about everyone in Magic Mike is struggling with some sort of crossroads.
As exciting and freewheeling as Magic Mike is, it makes it all the more disappointing that when the movie reaches its later stages, its predictable story starts to take over. Those familiar with Boogie Nights or Goodfellas or really any movie about a situation that seems too good to be true will dread the film's second half, which loses the spark and rush of the opening reels. You could say it's the one problem with Soderbergh's newfound freedom: His recent films have too often started off terrifically, only to lose steam by the finale. (Interestingly, the two that didn't—The Girlfriend Experience and the Spalding Gray documentary And Everything Is Going Fine—are the two that seemed closest to his heart.) Still, it's hard to fault Magic Mike too much. The film is very much like McConaughey's Dallas: Its initially a lot of fun to be around, but eventually risks wearing out its welcome. Until then, though, it puts on a hell of a show.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.