Down but never out is Steven Soderbergh's oeuvre
Down but never out is Steven Soderbergh's oeuvre

Magic Mike, a new comedy-drama about male strippers, resembles numerous other films by Steven Soderbergh, but only to a certain extent. The subject matter promises a companion piece to The Girlfriend Experience (2009), which dealt with prostitution, but that movie was cool and detached whereas this one is warm and engaging. The lower-middle-class milieu sometimes recalls Erin Brockovich (2000), with Julia Roberts, but that was an issue drama about community building, whereas most of the characters in Magic Mike are out for themselves. Soderbergh shot the major dance sequences in long takes, using only a few camera setups, just as he did the fight scenes of his recent action movie Haywire. Yet in that movie the approach serves to generate suspense, whereas here it establishes familiarity with the people in the story.

None of these characteristics convey any personal relationship between artist and material—which may be the most characteristic thing about them. Soderbergh is the David Bowie of American filmmaking, a chameleon who’s covered so many different genres and styles that he seems enigmatic. In the past five years, though—an extraordinarily active period in which the director has threatened to retire and then reversed himself—recurring themes and images have provided clues to his identity. In 2008 Soderbergh decided to abandon film for the Red digital camera, a lightweight model that comes closer than previous designs to approximating the look of celluloid. The technology has permitted Soderbergh to make films quickly and cheaply (Magic Mike was produced for just $5 million, the lowest budget in years for a Warner Brothers release) and inspired him to work more intuitively. As a result, a recognizable perspective is beginning to emerge.

To start piecing together the Soderbergh puzzle, consider these commonalities in the six dramatic films he’s released since 2008:

1. Off-center compositions. Since Traffic (2000), Soderbergh has shot all his own films (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), which makes their cinematography all but interchangeable with his direction. In recent work he’s routinely photographed interior scenes from a corner of the room or at an oblique angle to the characters, making them seem marginalized or subservient to the interior design. It’s a clever way of depicting personal relationships in our decentralized information age, and three of these movies—The Girlfriend Experience; The Informant! (2009), a satire about a corporate whistleblower; and Contagion (2011), a thriller about an international pandemic—deal with social networks made possible by the new digital economy.

On a more basic level, this camera setup conveys an investigative curiosity, as if the director were a fly on the wall. Working with the Red, a director needn’t spend as much time preparing each shot, and in Magic Mike the offhandness can be felt in the casual, even jokey wide-screen compositions. Introducing the title character (Channing Tatum), Soderbergh places him just right of center, one of his sexual conquests getting dressed in the lower left-hand corner while a second lies naked in bed in the lower right-hand corner; the witty image hints at licentiousness while chastely separating the players. When the action moves to Xquisite, where Mike performs in an all-male revue, Soderbergh arranges the dancers in different spatial combinations. One of the biggest laughs comes from a deep-focus shot in which two men talk in the background while a third works himself with a penis pump in the foreground, his cock taking up the entire left side of the frame.

2. Aspects of documentary realism. Soderbergh’s two-part epic Che (2008) was notable for the way it avoided a traditional biopic structure to immerse the viewer in historical and geographical detail. The movie didn’t offer much psychological insight into Che Guevara, but it reveled in the atmosphere of the Bolivian jungle and the original UN building in New York, trying to re-create his experience by looking long and hard at the same things he looked at. Soderbergh’s subsequent films have been marked by the same eccentric recording of realistic detail. Both The Girlfriend Experience and Haywire were constructed around performers who had no mainstream acting experience—porn star Sasha Grey and mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, respectively—but brought a certain physical authenticity to their roles.

As many outlets have reported, Tatum’s character in Magic Mike was inspired by the actor’s own experiences as a stripper, so on one level his dance numbers in the film are a documentary portrait of his former life. Soderbergh also shot the film entirely on location in Tampa, Florida, taking advantage of actual town houses, nightclubs, and construction sites. The city registers as a world of easy sex and shitty service-industry jobs, which makes Mike’s gig at Xquisite seem less like a moral compromise than a viable career option.

3. Star power. Since Out of Sight (1998)—arguably the first movie to take full advantage of George Clooney’s Cary Grant-like charisma—Soderbergh has shown a knack for eliciting smart performances from big stars: consider Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Matt Damon in The Informant! and Contagion, and the celebrities that parade through the Ocean’s Eleven movies. Soderbergh uses these actors much as John Ford used John Wayne or Alfred Hitchcock used James Stewart, playing on the most likable aspects of their personas so that their performances seem effortless. Not coincidentally, his central characters over the past decade often rely on charisma or a commanding presence to achieve their goals: Guevara, Danny Ocean, Mark Whitacre in The Informant!

Soderbergh seems to work with nonactors for the same reasons he works with stars, which makes The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant! feel like flip sides of the same coin. Tatum splits the difference between Soderbergh’s two types of protagonists: he definitely has movie-star charisma, but there’s something unformed in his onscreen persona. Some of his line readings are awkward, and it’s hard to believe him as anything other than a sensitive bimbo. Yet Soderbergh turns these deficiencies to his advantage: Mike is believably sweet and naive, too smart to keep working as a stripper at age 30 but too self-deluded to quit.

4. A fascination with how things work. This is the crucial aspect of Soderbergh’s recent films, which have concerned the minute workings of businesses, vocations, and international communications. Though rooted in the elaborate heists of Out of Sight and the Ocean movies, it flowered in the five-hour Che. Since then Soderbergh’s movies have been rife with minute details of the characters’ work (even the short scenes set in law offices in The Informant! feel meticulously researched). His protagonists are constantly—and consciously—navigating through some large system: the shrewd comedy of The Girlfriend Experience comes from showing how even a self-employed call girl must participate in a larger economic structure to advance her career.

Mike is no exception. Not only does he dance at Xquisite; he balances the books. He manages two construction businesses and hopes to start his own custom furniture company. In the movie’s central scene Mike attempts to sweet-talk a bank officer into granting him a small business loan; it’s the first time his charisma proves unsuccessful (all his savings are in cash), and it hints at his comeuppance in the final act. The scene also reveals the barriers to upward mobility in the current economy, which is what Magic Mike is really all about. The most surprising thing about the movie is its prosaic view of working life: for every titillating striptease, there’s a reminder of the unglamorous work that goes into the show (constant exercise, resewing the hems on thongs, massaging the strippers with spray-on tan).

These details may reveal more about Soderbergh than any of the characters in his movies. Losing himself in his own work has made him especially adept at observing the work of others, and this inquisitive, self-effacing approach often allows that work to speak for itself. At the same time, his experience with myriad filmmaking styles gives him a good idea what will and won’t register dramatically in a movie. Honing an aesthetic that enables him to make movies in any environment, Soderbergh is figuring out how to make any environment the stuff of movies.