Magic Mike

When I was in college I had a professor who was fond of talking about the "fox and the hedgehog", which is a metaphor about the difference between being widely read and being well read. You see, if the fox is going to eat it has to be good at many things - it has to be able to track, and to run, and to escape being noticed, and so forth. However, if the hedgehog is going to avoid getting eaten it only has to be good at one thing - it just has to be able to burrow down until only it's spikes are visible. It's a helpful comparison to teach college kids, who might not have figured out what they want to get out of their education... But it is also a bit of an oversimplification, because there definitely are people who are part hedgehog and part fox.

Take for example Steven Soderbergh. Now, any film director has to be a bit of a fox-hedgehog hybrid because they have to be able to manage every challenge that might pop up on set while also maintaining one clear vision of the film, but Soderbergh is an auteur who is particularly hard to place in either camp. He makes movies in a wide variety of genres but they almost always feel Soderberghian; even though he makes micro-budget films with non-actors he doesn't really feel like an indie director because he also makes big Hollywood blockbusters with huge stars; and while he has some themes that thread through his work, he approaches those themes in completely different ways in every movie. His general vibe is that of a focused dilettante - someone who is going to be focused with laser accuracy on a particular idea for a short period of time before jumping to a similar (but also markedly different) idea very soon.

It's interesting to look at Soderbergh's 2012 movie Magic Mike in this light, because it's a film that is very much trapped between extremes. Magic Mike tells the story of two male strippers in Tampa Florida, and the contrast between Magic Mike and his protege The Kid allows Soderbergh to make two movies at once. If you look at the story from Mike's perspective, it is an occasionally dark character study about an older brother type trying to help a troubled younger man get on his feet by teaching him how to hustle. If you look at it from The Kid's perspective, this is a raucous musical with a lot of fun song and dance numbers and only occasional interruptions from the real world. The story's dual protagonists allows Soderbergh to toggle back and forth between Saturday Night and Sunday Morning with relative ease, wedding Mike's hard won cynicism with The Kid's understandable excitement.

If you're a die hard Soderbergh fan (as I am, obviously) you can see a lot of wedding vows-ish "something old, something new" touches in Magic Mike. The old: Soderbergh has long been fascinated by the logistics of strange jobs, so a backstage drama at a male strip club makes sense in the context of his career. The new: none of his other work-based movies provide such an explicit contrast between two people who do the same job to such different effects. (Although I suppose Behind the Candelabra comes close, but Liberace is paid to be Liberace while Scott Thorson is paid to be Liberace's boyfriend, so they aren't really doing the same job, even though they sometimes show up to the same venues at the same time. But that's a digression.)

Anyway, Soderbergh's portraits of working people are generally nonjudgmental, even when he's looking at people that do unpleasant jobs, but Magic Mike is especially even handed in the way that it depicts stripping because it's showing us what stripping looks like to a 20 year old (it's great!) and what it looks like to a thirty year old (it's not so great!). This movie isn't more nuanced than Soderbergh's other movies because it's examining it's subject through the prism of age, but it is differently nuanced than his other movies because none of them use that perspective to such a thorough extent.

Of course, the ultimate duality is that Magic Mike is a really light movie that you can just enjoy for it's shirtless dancing, or this is a complicated movie that you can academically slice up if you want to. Yes, it probably seems silly to treat the movie that gave us the Ladies of Tampa song with such seriousness, but at the same time Soderbergh has such a knack for turning seemingly straight forward stories on their ear that only treating this movie as a piece of fluff about well oiled hunks would be a little simplistic. Sure, this film has a shiny surface - a constantly flexing, often barely clothed surface. But there's also a skeleton underneath that surface, and that skeleton is surprisingly solid, since this is a movie that asks basic philosophical questions about the limits of hedonism and whether we should choose a life that's fun over one that's deep.

I'll spare you the longer philosophical diatribe - if you see the film, the dialogue between the increasingly conservative Mike and the increasingly indulgent Kid speaks for itself. Instead, I want to briefly return to the philosophical framework I used to start this review: the fox and the hedgehog. That predator / prey dichotomy is real, but omnivores also exist and their more complicated existence is a lot more compelling to me. As such, I've always been attracted to creators like Soderbergh - people who have an omnivorous output that alternates between enjoyably shallow work and narratively deep work, especially if they are capable of making movies that somehow manage to fit into both extremes at the same time. The idea of an art movie about male exotic dancers is kind of insane, but I have to say: God bless Soderbergh, cinema's premier fox-hog, for deciding to bring such a strange project to the big screen.

Winner: Me

Magic Mike on IMDB