*Magic Mike (R)
Score one for the auteur theory: It's easy to imagine that, if directed by pretty much anyone besides Steven Soderbergh, Magic Mike might have been virtually unwatchable.
The "auteur theory" has been back in the cinematic conversation in the week following the death of pioneering film critic Andrew Sarris, who popularized for American audiences the notion of the director as the defining creative voice of a film. It's always been a highly charged debate when dealing with such a collaborative artistic medium, and a thorn in the side of screenwriters who already spend their careers getting the crap kicked out of their egos.
But then you see something that's such a triumph of a filmmaker's style over the story's substance, and you just have to give it up to the Sarris-ites. Magic Mike delivers a funky charge of entertainment almost entirely thanks to what its director adds to the formula.
Which is fairly crucial, because formula doesn't get much more formulaic than this tale, apparently inspired by actor Channing Tatum's own experiences as a nightclub stripper. He stars here as the titular Mike, who spends his nights grinding in a Tampa club called Xquisite, and his days grinding away at odd jobs trying to save money to start a custom furniture business.
On one of those jobs he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a 19-year-old college dropout living on the couch of his sister, Brooke (Cody Horn). Soon Mike is introducing Alex to the world of dry-humping for crumpled dollar bills, while Mike anticipates the opening of a new club in Miami in which he's been promised a stake by its owner, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey).
If you're getting a whiff of every tale with a naïve newcomer, veteran mentor and vaguely shady business that has percolated throughout cinema history, your nose is trustworthy. The script by Reid Carolin is a mash-up of everything from All About Eve to Boogie Nights, with a generous dose of Showgirls, Cocktail and Coyote Ugly stirred into the mix. It's the kind of story where the wide-eyed protégé is literally referred to as "The Kid," and where his raw potential is instantly spotted by someone who says, "You've got something, Kid."
It's the kind of movie where someone pondering a crucial life decision sits staring pensively out at the ocean, and where the montages flow as freely as the breezes across the beach. And as soon as the innocent lad takes the first pill offered to him — with a hurricane blowing in the background, no less — you know things are about to spiral out of control.
Yet Magic Mike offers a buzz that feels fresh — and that's what Soderbergh contributes. His facility with finding a casual vibe for his actors leads to the kind of naturalism that has always elevated his genre films like Out of Sight and Ocean's Eleven.
He guides a loose, frisky performance by Channing, and one from McConaughey that fully embraces his narcissistic image and even his clichéd utterance of "All right, all right, all right." Soderbergh moves his camera over scenes of debauchery with the confidence that one impressionistic moment can do more than lingering on a naked body; he frames individual shots with a casual brilliance that forces you to take a moment to realize what you're seeing. Simply by refusing to phone it in, Soderbergh makes Magic Mike worth holding our attention.
The script seems to be trying for something slightly ambitious by grafting its gutter-to-glory arc onto a look at Great Recession-era economics, and where we really deserve to turn our moral indignation. Also, you've got to give credit to any writer who comes up with a line as priceless as, "So, how pregnant did you get that girl's mouth?"
It seems absurd, though, not to acknowledge that Magic Mike could exist primarily as glossy, socially acceptable porn for girls; at the screening I attended, the collective estrogen level could have synchronized menstrual cycles over a five-state area.
The fact that it doesn't feel like merely a cookie-cutter creation spiced up with assless chaps is a result of a director with a sense for how to make any story singularly his own. Somewhere, Andrew Sarris is looking down with a smile and a nod.