It's maybe time to stop trying to "figure out" Steven Soderbergh's movies. The Academy Award-winning director has made some strange veers over the past few years, and we've spent a lot of time chasing after him, trying to explain away his odd genre tweaks as slight, tossed-off experiments. We were confident that the Traffic director would eventually find his way back to the Serious stuff we know him to be capable of, but that hasn't happened. He's continued down his weird genre rabbit hole and we, or at least some of us, are increasingly reluctant to follow him. The curiously remote Contagion and the chilly, flat Haywire were both such alienating, empty movies that it almost felt like Soderbergh was deliberately pushing us away. His latest feature Magic Mike is a little warmer and more inviting, but like those films it's also a canny feat of technique that otherwise feels mostly bloodless and disconnected.
Were we to play the genre game, Magic Mike would be Soderbergh's protégé movie. The Cocktail, the Coyote Ugly, even the Wall Street. It's a movie about a guy lured into a world of easy money earned by dirty means — it's a morality play posing as something fun and freewheeling. Our setting is Tampa, Florida, which Soderbergh films in blushing, Instagram hues, though we spend most of our time indoors. The story concerns Adam, a 19-year-old slacker dropout, who meets Mike, a 30-ish dude who works construction by day and, much to Adam's initial surprise, strips at an all-male revue by night. Adam is quickly ushered into this world — one that isn't really sexy or seedy — and soon has an ambition and ego to match his broad shoulders and architectural abs. It's a simple story, with Adam getting a bit overzealous and out of control while Mike contemplates closing up shop for good (he wants to own his own furniture making business). There's a happy if ambiguous ending and, yes, there are lots of butts and pecs and thrusts and humps. It is the male stripper movie, after all.
But the strange thing about all that toned flesh and sinew is that it's hardly erotic. The stripping in Magic Mike, and there is a good deal of it, is more an expression of reasonably wholesome merriment. There's some coy winking in the performances and certainly Adam and Mike frequently reap the post-show sexual benefits ("How pregnant did you get that girl's mouth?" Mike asks Adam, in one of the movie's more startlingly crude moments), but mostly the stripteases are simply a laugh and a lark, they're jokes traded on the idea that it's silly to see men shimmy and pose like sexual objects. It's no different than drag, really. So it's easy to go through most of Magic Mike without feeling any, well, thunder down under. What's more surprising, though, is that the movie is, at root, something of a drama. It's a recession story and a growing older story and a sallow, exasperated look at aimless youth. Soderbergh isn't kidding around, even though his movie has a character named Big Dick Richie and features Matthew McConaughey's bare, be-thonged rear end.
Mike is played with soft, slightly wounded swagger by Channing Tatum, who has, over the years, proven himself a master at easing into that particular character. He's a younger generation's Mark Wahlberg, a toughie who's actually pretty squishy and well-meaning once you get to know him. Tatum can do a good banter and cock his neck just so to seem threatening, but mostly he's a nice guy who shies away from passing judgment and rolls with most punches. In this film Tatum glows with an aura of want (and an aura of Soderberghian light) and has tireder, sadder eyes than we're used to seeing. It's a subtle, unshowy performance — many of his lines of casual dialogue are half-swallowed and seem improv'd — but it's a perfect fit for Soderbergh's relaxed, leaned-back gloss. As he proved in a brief but memorable role in Haywire, Tatum understands the loose, late-afternoon flow that Soderbergh likes to play in, and he plugs into it nicely. We are actually dealing with an actor here, it seems. This isn't Tatum's Boogie Nights — another protégé film about selling sex, one that turned Mark Wahlberg into a serious actor — but he nonetheless commands respect. And he's a hell of a dancer.
He's joined by a stable of other talents. Matthew McConaughey, playing revue owner and former dancer Dallas, says "All right, all right, all right" enough to still read as Matthew McConaughey, but he also commits, diving into the skin of an actual character with a limber dip and coming up grinning. He's magnetic without stealing focus and adds much needed grain and traction to an at-times too slick movie. Other dancers are played by True Blood's Joe Manganiello (he's Richie, of Big Dick fame), former pro wrestler Kevin Nash (Soderbergh's nod to Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, I suspect), and the impossibly lovely Matt Bomer. None of these guys have much to do — there's some dancing and some easy, Altman-y overlapping dialogue — but they're relaxed and assured and help keep the beat going. Olivia Munn, of Attack of the Show and now The Newsroom, turns in a surprisingly winning performance as a steady f-ck buddy of Mike's, sporting a breezy, lived-in naturalness that we haven't really seen from her before. She's usually all pinched staccato standing in for wit and piquancy, but here she's genuinely sharp and alluring. Again it's not much of a role, but she plays well with others and respectably holds the film's tone.
But then we come to Adam and his sister, Brooke, who are played, respectively, by rising/struggling young British actor Alex Pettyfer and Cody Horn, the daughter of the guy who runs the studio that released this movie. Pettyfer has shown in his short and unpleasant career that he's not got a terribly good grasp on this whole acting thing — he sulked woodenly in Beastly and, well, sulked woodenly in I Am Number Four — and here he's as dull and inert as he's ever been. Make no mistakes, the boy is a genuine, grade-A looker, and he demands focus during his sexy-pexy dance scenes, but when he's not giving us a peep of his butt or giving a girl sex eyes, he's an utter void, sucking up a scene's energy and breathing little out in return. I don't predict big things for Mr. Pettyfer, even though, again, he is chiseled from marble. Horn too is a garishly lifeless performer, one who can do a natural bit of back-and-forth ably enough — she's even charming in one brief scene — but when she is asked to do much of anything more she collapses like a house of cards. Soderbergh likes working with non-actors and his success rate has been hit or miss. He coaxed fine work out of the amateurs who populated Bubble, but couldn't get MMA fighter Gina Carano to ignite anything in Haywire. Horn and Pettyfer, though they are are technically professional actors, are in Carano's company. As evidenced by Tatum and McConaughey's smooth groove, Soderbergh's innately inanimate movies need some pizzaz to make them sing. Pettyfer and Horn, two of the biggest characters in the film, have exactly zero pizzaz, and thus slow the whole thing to a crawl.
Magic Mike is not the muscly romp you maybe thought it was. Though it certainly has moments of levity and comedy, it's still something of a serious movie, a plodding, quiet, and lightly meditative look at young people passing their time, at Florida as a sun-drenched gold ochre waiting room, and at the human body as a nobly silly tool of distraction. People going for Showgirls-esque titillation or Full Monty style ribaldry will be a bit disappointed, I suspect. That's the thing with Soderbergh's little projects. They initially look like something familiar but then go a slightly different, more off-kilter direction. Magic Mike isn't a bad movie — it's airy and pleasant and more emotionally engaging than a lot of Soderbergh's recent work — but it's also not the movie it perhaps should have been. Neither sexy nor terribly smart, it's a halfhearted seduction at best.
Meanwhile, Channing Tatum's soul brother Mark Wahlberg is in a mild, tonally warmed over movie of his own, an unexpectedly kindhearted movie from TV's overeager Seth MacFarlane. Ted, about a talking teddybear and his owner/best friend, trades in the same kind of comedy as MacFarlane's Fox cartoons, chiefly his smash success Family Guy, a raucous and meandering comedy of tropes and manners that occasionally zings with a good one-liner but almost always winds up feeling flimsy and cheap. Like Family Guy, Ted is full of references to esoteric fragments of pop culture and finicky riffs on common tics in speech and behavior, but unlike Family Guy, this is a feature film. That's a lot of space to fill, and TV-sized humor is just not going to get the job done.
MacFarlane voices the teddybear, named Ted, who, now that Wahlberg's John is all grown up, has become a foul-mouthed, hard-partying, but still smart and well-intentioned layabout. It's a funny-ish conceit, but pretty quickly Ted's bawdy antics get a bit tiresome and the film loses its main comedic engine. Wahlberg and his human costar Mila Kunis, mostly just playing The Girl, have a couple of funny moments of their own, but Ted is the front and center joke and once his batteries start dying the movie quickly deflates. Non Ted-styled jokes, like an extended bit about the old Flash Gordon movie and a big, brutal set piece fight, were met with uncomfortable silence and forced chuckles in the audience I was in, which is not a sound you want to hear at a big summer comedy. These jokes likely would have played fine on television, where a little randomness can go a long way, but in a big movie theater it all feels a bit too granular and awkwardly specific.
Still, the movie dares to be heartwarming, which is admirable in its own strange way. The movie is essentially about Kunis' character coming to accept Ted while John learns to grow up a little, which is a boilerplate movie plot. But there are some cute and clever nuances that MacFarlane, who directed and co-wrote, sprinkles throughout to make the old story seem a bit fresher. He films Boston lovingly, creating a city of perpetual breezy spring, and he's assembled an eclectic cast of oddball supporting players, none more oddball than Giovanni Ribisi, who at one point does a grotesquely sexy/sexily grotesque dance to "I Think We're Alone Now" that rivals anything in Magic Mike. He doesn't strip, but he worms and wiggles with the best of them.
Ted is not the watershed, Seth MacFarlane-transfers-to-the-big-screen moment it could have been, but it's certainly not a disaster either. It's a perfectly well-meaning film, even though some references are pretty cruel in their careless, arbitrary way and there is enough fart humor throughout to sustain a sixth grade class for a year. I don't think that Hollywood will exactly be beating down MacFarlane's door to get him to make another movie, but I hope he gives it another go nonetheless. Maybe he can move away from the small screen Family Guy stuff and really give the old romantic comedy genre a nice retro polish, which is clearly what MacFarlane, with all his extracurricular Sinatra crooning, wants to do. Get rid of the fart jokes, put the guy in a suit and the gal in a dress, and give us some buoyant, screwball romance, Mr. MacFarlane. I know it's fun to be puckish and rude, but it could be even sweeter to be sincere.