Monday, March 24, 2014

Magic Mike

(Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2012)

Soderbergh remains, for me, the American director with the greatest discrepancy between likeability and actual quality.  Let me clarify: while I admire Soderbergh greatly for his stylishness, his willingness to experiment, his prolific working habits, and his political awareness (he's no fan of The Man), I enjoy his films only intermittently.   Often, for me, they are objects to be admired but not cherished; they are stimulating to think about, but they always, to varying degrees, seem lacking. 

That's imprecise criticism, so I'll try to be more specific.  What it comes down to, I believe, is a matter of taste.  I can't quite get behind his visual choices, his musical cues, and his preference for flat, haphazard acting.  Sometimes they come together quite nicely, but more often than not, they feel undercooked.  Magic Mike is a case in point.  Although it has lots to recommend it - a genuine sense of place, the illumination of an unusual world, stylistic verve and dexterity - it never quite gathers enough steam to be more than a solid piece of light entertainment. 

Visually, Soderbergh favors edgy, unsymmetrical framing and bold color schemes.  In Magic Mike, this tendency is pushed particularly far, so that most daylight scenes seem drenched in a dense yellow haze.  His preference for heavy saturation works better in the nightclub scenes, which are appropriately lurid.  He frames his characters obliquely, and this combines with the strangely poor sound recording to give the action - when it's not exotic dancing - a muted, distant feeling. 

The story is a good one, and the implicit commentary on American class, circa 2013, is sharp and clear-eyed.  It might be that the film is all too successful in expressing the subtext; the braggadocio of the characters, which renders their prefab, Reality TV ambitions almost quaint, serves to underline the lightness of the film overall.   While Tatum has undeniable charisma as Mike, the rest of the actors feel like they're stuck in neutral.  Soderbergh doesn't seem to know what to do with them; although he directs the dance segments with wit and energy, the nuts-and-bolts aspects of the story feel tossed-off, as if the director were being deliberately casual in his approach.

Taste aside, there is a more concrete reason for the awkwardness that crops up in Soderbergh's films.  His films are, to varying degrees, formalist exercises.  Although he has unmistakable stylistic tics, he tends to shoehorn them into preexisting structures:  Out of Sight was his 70s crime picture, Traffic was his ensemble social-issue drama, Contagion was his ensemble disaster nailbiter, and so forth.  While the results can be satisfying, as the above examples illustrate - all of them are solid, enjoyable, smart films - they rarely inspire, because they are caught between the director's sharp conceptual intelligence and his duty-bound fealty to various narrative conventions.  When forced to choose between the third-act emotional peak and his more abstract inclinations, he tends to fall back on the rulebook.  His great theme is people within systems, but there is only so much depth that can be wrung from that kind of story.  They work better as macro investigations; when things become too intimate, Soderbergh has a tendency to falter. 

Contrast him with a filmmaker like Scorsese, and it's easy to see the difference.  Even The Departed, while clearly a paycheck movie for him and not a passion project, was infused nonetheless with his feisty, exuberant sensibility.  He bent the conventional rules just enough to fit his own set of preoccupations with power and morality.  While the film was a self-evident studio package, every frame buzzed with Scorsese's personal brand of barely-contained chaos.  He was making another gangster picture, in one sense, but this didn't stop him from finding new ways of expressing themes that go all the way back in his oeuvre.

Soderbergh, who doesn't have that level of preoccupation, or at least hasn't since very early in his career (Sex, Lies, and Videotape remains unsettlingly good precisely because it seems so close to Soderbergh's heart) is content to offer up mild, witty, satisfying fare, but it's precisely in the brightness of his evident talent that you can see all that he isn't saying about his subjects. 

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