Tuesday 17 July 2012
(Steven Soderbergh, 2012) Few directors make films so acute and intelligent about the way we live now as Steven Soderbergh. It's partly the way he shoots. And he does shoot, acting (under pseudonyms) as his own cinematographer and editor. The control this gives him over the visual character of his films means his interest in capturing something of the fleeting, instant beauty of the modern world is evident in much of his work. Magic Mike, which has discomforting elements reminiscent of the romantic comedy, is partly a lifestyle movie, dedicated to revealing the glamour of a life far removed from what most in the audience would consider normal. And Soderbergh is skilled at making that life look truly beautiful. His film follows a 30 year old stripper-entrepreneur (Channing Tatum, wholly winning here) over three months of summer in Tampa, Florida, as he introduces an unemployed, aimless hunk (Alex Pettyfer) to his particular form of showbiz, questions his own future, and becomes attracted to his new friend's sister (Cody Horn). The story is set in a sunkissed corner of the US, and these young strippers move in a world of designer apartments and beach houses, pounding nightclubs and parties on sandbanks, drive immense 4x4s and mix with beautiful women. Soderbergh gives all of that the allure it demands. Soderbergh also captures the time and place with a fluid vividness and attention to detail and texture that gives the story a resonance on an intimate, everyday level. Whereas many modern films set in glamourous worlds feel unreal, impossibly perfect and set-dressed, Soderbergh ensures this film feels like it's set in our world. And yet, while Magic Mike seems to celebrate it's protagonists lifestyle, Soderbergh instead critiques it. The scenes of the strippers performances are shot in a manner reminiscent of the fight scenes in his last film, Haywire; master-shot displays of virtuoso skill and athleticism. A couple of them are played for laughs, and the film never shies away from the darker side of the sex industry; the injuries, the drugs, the lonely lack of a future. Only the undeniable homo-eroticism is never acknowledged, though it may be utterly implicit in the numerous instances of muscled men dancing together. This is decidedly a film for the austerity era; Mike is stymied in his entrepreneurial ambitions by cold economic reality, and there is an ever-present hard-scrabble quality to his daily activities, carrying a wad of notes in his pocket, juggling his businesses. His journey to self-discovery and escape is compelling and beautifully played by Tatum, while his friend "The Kid" is on the opposite trajectory, more or less becoming Mike. Pettyfer plays his character with just the right amount of cockiness creeping into a slightly blank lack of definition. Both are outshone by Matthew McConaughey, stealing every scene he's in as Dallas, the owner of the strip-club and a natural showman and preacher, all oiled pecs and hyperbolic southern charm. The weakest element is the love story - partly because Horn is a little stiff (but then so is her character, it might be argued) - which comes to a disappointingly predictable, if familiarly satisfying, conclusion after a few interestingly and realistically ambiguous early exchanges between its mismatched pair. Overall, however, Magic Mike is an almost casually great piece of American movie-making; brilliantly made and stylishly gripping toughout.