Soderbergh milks magic
(16, general release, 110 minutes)
Director: Steven Soderbergh Stars: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Joe Manganiello, Matthew McConaughey
Through a long and distinguished career that stretches all the way back to 1989 and his breakthrough cult hit Sex, Lies and Videotape, Steven Soderbergh has never been quite able to shake the accusation that he's strong on style, short on substance.
Even in his best films -- Out of Sight, The Informant! -- plot lines can get overwhelmed by flashy editing, a fiddly colour palate and domineering soundtracks.
In his stride, though, Soderbergh is a fluent, skillful filmmaker, and he's in a decent run of form at the moment. His trashy lo-fi action thriller Haywire, which came out earlier this year, was insubstantial but nicely made and at times genuinely imaginative in its approach to a worn-out genre.
Magic Mike probably doesn't even belong to a genre, but Soderbergh again brings an arthouse sensibility to bear on a subject used to shabbier treatment.
The film stars Channing Tatum and was based in part on the actor's brief stint as a stripper in Tampa, Florida -- he needed the money, apparently.
Channing is Michael Lane, a Tampa construction worker who moonlights as a stripper at a local club called 'Xquisite' under the stage name of Magic Mike.
Up-and-coming English actor Alex Pettyfer is Alex, an arrogant but handsome young slacker who turns up on the building site after losing a football scholarship by fighting with his coach.
Mike doesn't think much of the kid at first, but when Alex gets fired for stealing, Mike takes pity on him and agrees to get him backstage at Xquisite.
When a stripper called Tarzan comes over all queasy, Alex goes on in his place and proves an absolute natural. The ladies love him and he becomes an Xquisite regular, but his protective older sister Brooke (Cody Horn) does not approve.
Which is awkward for Magic Mike, because he's taken rather a shine to Brooke, a quiet, thoughtful girl so very different to the oversexed females that haunt Xquisite.
This dramatic triangle forms the essence of Soderbergh's nicely paced drama, which skillfully milks comedy, pathos and elaborate male stripping routines that seem absurd until you remember the kind of things their female equivalents are expected to do.
Matthew McConaughey, who's in the midst of an unexpected renaissance after his powerful turn in Killer Joe, is great fun as Xquisite's sleazy manager, and Tatum is most convincing as Magic Mike.
An American critic recently noted that while we know he can play stupid, playing smart might be an uphill battle, but this seems overly unkind.
For all its technical gloss, however, Magic Mike's conclusions hardly seem to justify the journey.
Stripping as a career choice is morally corrosive for men too -- who knew?
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