Magic Mike is an ensemble piece about the intersections of masculinity, sex, romance and the American Dream.
Steven Soderbergh’s comic male stripper drama Magic Mike was released in 2012, right in the middle of one of the director’s most prolific and varied periods. With half of the films in this period, Soderbergh was paying tribute to real-life people who interested him, either by building films around them or telling their story. He did this by telling Che Guevara’s story in his two-part epic Che, casting adult film star Sasha Grey in 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience, building a spy-thriller around MMA fighter Gina Carano in 2011’s Haywire and telling Liberace’s story in 2013’s Behind the Candelabra. With the other half, Soderbergh was making more commercially driven films dealing with global issues, such as 2009’s price-fixing dramedy The Informant!, 2011’s global pandemic-thriller Contagion and 2013’s pharmaceutical drama Side Effects.
It’s fitting that Magic Mike is nestled right in the middle of these other films because the movie fulfills both of the aforementioned Soderbergh ambitions. On the one hand, it’s a film based around frequent Soderbergh collaborator Channing Tatum and based on Tatum’s former life as a stripper in a Florida all-male revue. On the other hand, Magic Mike is an ensemble piece about the intersections of masculinity, sex, romance and the American Dream.
Magic Mike marks the second of four collaborations between Tatum and Soderbergh following Haywire and preceding Side Effects and the upcoming NASCAR drama Logan Lucky (the second of five if you count Soderbergh’s work as executive producer and cinematographer on Magic Mike’s sequel Magic Mike XXL). The chemistry between star and director is immediately palpable, as Tatum has never been so at-ease on screen as he is here as the titular Mike, a sensitive, gruff everyman who also happens to love stripping. Mike is an excellent character which is particularly notable as many of Magic Mike’s other parts are stock roles: the troubled teen in need of guidance, the concerned older sister, the hard-partying cautionary tale and a bevy of hunky, comically masculine male strippers.
Tatum’s performance isn’t the only highlight though. Matthew McConaughey’s excellent turn as Mike’s physically fading, financially ambitious boss Dallas launched the beginning of the “McConaussaince” that would later see him win an Oscar for Dallas Buyer’s Club and receive heaps of critical praise for his turn on “True Detective.” And Olivia Munn is sensational as a vicious, complicated woman who uses Mike for his body.
The real star of Magic Mike is, however, the dancing. It’s a testament to Soderbergh’s versatility as a director that he can allow the drama to take a backseat to incredibly entertaining dance numbers without trying too hard to “make a point.” Much of the “point” is fun, plain and simple. Choreographer Alison Faulk creates incredible dance routines that are entertaining while still remaining cheesy and believably amateur, considering the setting is a Florida strip club rather than the professional dancing world. Each striptease features wild, Chippendale-esque accouterments but also the occasional undercurrent of sadness or desperation that fit the setting and the characters.
The one thing that Magic Mike illogically sidesteps is homosexuality, which is barely addressed. Ours is not a world where groups of mostly naked heterosexual men can dance confidently around one another without some mention of sexuality and it makes Magic Mike come across as a kind of heterosexual fantasy at times. This approach worked, however, as the film did double the business in conservative areas of the United States than it did in liberal ones.
While Magic Mike isn’t Soderbergh’s most artful, successful or experimental film, it does represent the director at his most fun. While Magic Mike has plenty of dramatic elements, at its core it is a testament to male friendship and an exploration the relationship between masculinity and artistic expression. In many ways, it’s the reverse of his earlier hit Erin Brockovich, which featured a hyper-feminine female protagonist confidently exploring parts of her identity that could be perceived as more masculine. Magic Mike is a delight to watch and also reveals a new side to its charismatic star, which is something Soderbergh has a knack for doing.