What is it with Steven Soderbergh films being so beige? I can’t be the only one who’s thinking this, surely? Look back over the Soderbergh oeuvre (it’s worth doing; as oeuvres go it’s right up there) and you can almost extrapolate a beige-Soderberghian formula, a kind of colour chart guide to how idiosyncratic and identifiable the film you’re watching is.
The Informant!? Very beige, very Soderberghian, unless there are other whistle-blower biopics of corporate malfeasance played for broad laughs due for release any time soon. Those Ocean‘s films? Beige in parts, as if “Soderbergh the artist” occasionally appears behind “Soderbergh the studio player” to do bunny ears and then disappears again. Even the poster for Contagion is a little bit beige, like a neon sign declaring that you don’t even have to watch this one to know it’s Soderbergh.
Magic Mike starts out in a beige haze, which is to say it’s very Soderberghian. Which is another way of saying that, for the opening 30 minutes, it’s really good. It’s in no rush to get anywhere at all, which is just as well since the story – man lives hedonistic lifestyle that isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – isn’t the most exciting thing here. In fact, the more time Magic Mike spends away from this, the better it is.
That’s the Soderbergh enigma on a plate. He makes films are at their best when not weighed down by convention, or trying to do the a-b-c of Hollywood storytelling. Take The Limey. Played straight it’s an archetypal revenge thriller, done a thousand times and most of those times not very well. But Soderbergh jumbles it all up, filters it through Alain Resnais and John Boorman, and it’s an incredible piece of work, maybe one of his best (I’ll take Terence Stamp over George Clooney any day).
Magic Mike doesn’t play with time and place like so many Soderbergh films do. It’s pretty linear, even flashing up with the occasional ‘June’ and ‘July’ title cards to signify that, yes, time is passing in that regular one-day-after-another pattern that we’re used to. What it does do is throw the neat and tidy school of film-making out the window. Scenes end abruptly, characters amble, a plot doesn’t materialise until the second act. And it’s great. Really, really great.
Why? Because it frustrates expectations when so many films are happy to play to them, and that’s what’s so exciting about Soderberghian Soderbergh films. They’re more than just experiments in saturated colours, they’re like clichés reinvigorated and made exciting again, as if this is the first time anyone’s used them.
The film’s first half hour focuses on three characters – Channing Tatum’s male stripper, Alex Pettyfer’s new kid on the block, Cody Horn’s responsible sister of said new kid – and just lets us enjoy the interaction between them. The trick here is that they’re actually interesting, and you can feel that this is Soderbergh stamping his authority on Reid Carolin’s screenplay. It’s the closest Soderbergh has come to revisiting his Sex, Lies And Videotape debut, his camera just lingering and picking up the everyday, including a spot-on Schwarzenegger impression by Pettyfer.
But 30 minutes in and Soderbergh loses the battle with Carolin’s screenplay, which can’t decide what it wants to be – insight into world of male strippers, touching romance, morality tale about the dangers of living care free – so covers it all without ever really committing to any of them all that well.
Maybe this is the film’s way of replicating the male stripping experience – fun to start with, less so after that. Or maybe it’s Soderbergh the film-maker losing the battle with himself. Magic Mike is Soderbergh’s eighth film in five years, during which time he’s also made a documentary, shot second unit on The Hunger Games, and threatened to walk away from film-making. Allegedly. He’s a film-maker who seems to be growing ever more restless, ever more tired of the Hollywood machine.
Magic Mike‘s great bits seem like Soderbergh’s revolt against that machine, before the second half succumbs to it.
But it’s still better than Striptease, the last film about stripping that I can remember (unless I’m missing out a hidden sub-genre?). And it gives the cinema-watching world two things they haven’t seen for a long time: Channing Tatum’s acting chops (last seen in A Guide to Remembering Your Saints) and Matthew McConaughey’s abs.
The latter’s Dallas, a wise stripper mentor who has no qualms about wearing a Stetson-and-hotpants combo, is the film’s party piece, a wonderful mix of comedy, pathos and anger. As good as Tatum is (and he is genuinely good – this is one of those roles where his minimalist use of facial expressions works wonders), it’s McConaughey who works the real magic.
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