A google search for “Soderbergh retirement” returns 603,000 results. Ever since March 2011 when the director told The Hollywood Reporter that he would be retiring after his next two pictures, the film world has been hoping he’s been pulling our legs. While he has since gone back and adjusted these claims to say it may only be a “sabbatical” and that he could just focus on television projects, it is almost certain that the man regarded as Hollywood’s most “interesting” film-maker isn’t going to be as “present” as he has been since making a splash by winning the 1989 Palme D’Or at Cannes with Sex, Lies and Videotape.
After a few stagnating years in the early 1990s, Stephen Soderbergh eventually fulflled all that early potential with 1998′s Out of Sight, before quickly following up with the wonderful trilogy of Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven. These three films seemed to disprove academic auteur theory by showing that it is possible for a director to adapt and make pictures for everyone whether they’re pseudo-intellectual film buffs, house-wives or couples simply looking for a good heist movie for their date night. Since then he’s pretty much done whatever he wanted, whether that was no-budget independent films like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience, Ocean’s sequels, five-hour Che Guevara biopics or action revenge films like 2012′s Haywire.
But before we send round the email about the retirement cake in the meeting room at 3pm on Friday, we get to look at Magic Mike, the “stripper movie” loosely based on some of the real-world experience of Channing Tatum’s early work in the adult entertainment business. Tatum plays the lead character of Mike, a 30-year-old Florida stripper with ambitions beyond the baby oil who is unable to get financing or motivation to get his custom furniture business off the ground. He befriends Alex Pettyfer’s Adam and takes a fancy to his sister Brooke, played by Cody Horn, an actress whose IMDB bio is a slightly sad one-liner – “Daughter of Warner Bros. President & COO Alan F. Horn.”
Tatum is part of Tampa’s premier stripping group who are managed by Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas. McConaughey continues to show that his agent deserves a nice bonus for getting him such great roles. This year we’ve already enjoyed him in Bernie (my review) and Killer Joe (Páraic’s review) and with Mud, Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to Take Shelter on the way, he is sure to be one of Spooool’s “Men of 2012″ candidates by the time awards season rolls around. Here his performance is ridiculously over the top and yet absolutely pitch-perfect. Dallas is not given a whole lot to do as everyone has to fit in around Tatum and Pettyfer, but whenever he is on screen he dominates the frame with an absurd intensity.
Aside from Mike and Adam (aka “the kid”), you may also recognise the other four members of the stripping trope from TV – True Blood’s Joe Manganiello is “Big Dick Richie”, White Collar’s Matt Bomer is Ken, CSI: Miami’s Adam Rodriguez is Tito and lastly, and of most amusement to me, the 6″9′ former WWE superstar Kevin Nash who plays “Tarzan”. And just like his in-ring personas of “Big Daddy Cool”, Nash is slow to react and always a few seconds behind the guys performing next to him. Boom, a pro-wrestling joke.
Obviously some people will like the fact that two of the 21st century’s biggest movie hunks (Tatum and McConaughey) are taking their shirt off on screen, but there is plenty to keep everyone else’s interest levels high too. Working as his own D.P. again, Soderbergh has crafted a visually-engaging and downright gorgeous film. He’s always known the best place to put the camera, and if that means at a 90* angle in the back of a car framing Adam’s face as he lies passed out on the back seat then so be it. It’s unconventional but you get the sense that everything that goes into his shot goes in there for a reason.
The film runs at a little under two hours but rarely drags and moves along quite quickly over the course of a three-month narrative period. Dallas hopes to move the gang from Tampa to the lucrative streets of Miami and has promised Mike a share in the business, which effectively keeps his ambitions in check. The stripping numbers may be visually striking but they’re also pretty hilarious and presented with tongue firmly in cheek. Mike understands how ridiculous his evening profession is but it’s his most consistent earner so he sticks with it.
The film really only falls down with the relationship between Mike and Adam’s sister Brooke. She’s decidedly one-dimensional and we’re never given much insight into what motivates her in life. The final scenes between her and Mike seem like more of an after-thought than anything, with Soderbergh really struggling to wrap things up effectively. In some films this would feel like a real disappointment but Magic Mike ticks the boxes for fun times, visuals, warm infectious characters and a bucket-load of laughs so has to be given some leeway.
So discounting his Liberace biopic for HBO, Behind the Candelabra, we now only have one more Stephen Soderbergh film to look forward to. The Bitter Pill, a drama that sees him reteaming with Tatum once again and positioning him alongside Jude Law and Rooney Mara, arrives next February and will arrive a month after Soderbergh turns the big 5-0.
Someone better have the card and the gold watch ready as on the evidence of Magic Mike, the man is still on top form and will be severely missed.
USA / Directed By: Steven Soderbergh / Written By: Reid Carolin / Starring: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn, Joe Manganiello, Olivia Munn, Kevin Nash / 110min / Comedy, Drama / Release: 29 June 2012 (US/Canada), 11 July 2012 (UK/Ireland)