Over the last few years, Steven Soderbergh has quietly built a case for himself as American cinema’s leading formalist.  Though one might have extrapolated a career as a writer/director of low-key indie dramas based on his first feature, Sex, Lies, & Videotape, Soderbergh, who has not written any of his films since 2004, has lately revealed himself to belong to a class of Hollywood filmmakers engaged in exploring and exploiting the textural possibilities of digital technology.  Unlike his closest contemporary David Fincher, however, Soderbergh is difficult to pin down to a single tone.  Though recent Soderbergh films share such characteristics as off-balance compositions, snappy editing, center-left politics, and a chic urban sense of cool, they remain unpredictable in terms of genre or subject matter.  Interviews and profiles sketch a composite of a fiercely intelligent director who approaches projects from an interested but impartial perspective, immersing himself completely in his work but moving on after each completed film without forming any sentimental bonds to the material.  Part journalist, part aesthete, Soderbergh eschews a top-down thematic approach in favor of a submergence within the rhythms of a subject.  Where other directors might be more interested in, say, the moral consequences of a high-class prostitute’s lifestyle, Soderbergh is more compelled by the sheer economics of it.  Though this recent direction has produced some excellent films, most notably Contagion and The Informant!, Soderbergh’s methods of investigation and formal processing can often come across as more interesting than the films themselves.  For this reason, his greatest successes have so far come in the form of artful entertainments rather than ambitious statements; his distance from his material allows him to enliven studio-backed projects such as Ocean’s 11 while failing to supply the strong point of view necessary for films such as Che.  Luckily, Soderbergh’s latest, Magic Mike, falls into the former category, even serving as a culmination of the director’s recent work.

Magic Mike belongs to an endangered species within Hollywood: the auteur- and star-driven entertainment. In a summer clogged with effects-laden spectacle, Mike arrives as a welcome counterpoint, its engine powered by visual ingenuity and human charm. The film stars Channing Tatum as the titular character, a stripper/entrepreneur who takes the younger Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing. After a chance encounter, Mike gets Adam a job as a stripper at the club where he works, owned by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Adam proceeds to fall in love with the profession as Mike becomes increasingly disillusioned with it, finding that the lifestyle ultimately leaves him empty. In the hands of another director, one could easily see this synopsis as fodder for conservative wrist-slapping and juvenile guffawing. Soderbergh, however, strikes a delicate balance of tone, keeping the film’s energy comic but never derisive, sensitive but never sentimental. He is aided enormously by Tatum’s screen presence, instantly charismatic and likable, projecting a soft-tough-guy intelligence. Between this year’s 21 Jump Street and now Mike, Tatum has shown real movie star potential, a quality more elusive these days in Hollywood than capitol-A Acting. McConaughey, on the other hand, is finally coming into his own as an actor now that he’s moved away from leading man roles into weirder comic ones, echoing the transition made by Brad Pitt a few years ago.

Magic Mike will certainly qualify as one of the highlights of the summer entertainment-wise, yet its readily enjoyable surface cloaks a more troubling sense of uncertainty. A number of critics have pointed out that the film traces a surprisingly conservative arc; Mike becomes dissatisfied with stripping and attempts to move on to more fulfilling projects in his personal and professional lives. These critics are essentially right, but it would be a mistake to reduce Soderbergh’s perspective to one of disapprobation without taking into account the personal dimensions that inform his treatment of the material. Yes, that’s right, personal; Magic Mike offers itself up for biographical reading more easily than most of the director’s work. Though the story is allegedly based on Tatum’s pre-fame career as a male stripper, one can easily see what drew Soderbergh to the lead character. Mike is an aesthete working in one medium (dance) in which he is talented and inventive, yet he really wants to work in another (handmade furniture). Sound familiar? Those who follow Soderbergh’s career are by now familiar with his constant threats of retirement from film in favor of new efforts in the field of visual arts. Mike views stripping like Soderbergh seems to view cinema: with respect, but without a feeling of personal belonging. This deep ambivalence curdles into fear when examined closely. The film ends not with Mike achieving success in his medium of choice, but with a love scene.

Could Soderbergh be clogging his slate with film projects to avoid facing potential failure in his chosen passion? Magic Mike falls back on the reliable crutch of sex-with-love to send viewers home happy (and Soderbergh is plenty sexy when he wants to be- see: Out of Sight), but the doubt remains as to whether any of its characters will ever achieve professional fulfillment. Is money really all that Dallas seeks, as he claims? Will Adam inevitably run up against the same discontent as Mike? And will Mike, and by extension Soderbergh, ever transcend their celebrated limitations? Such questions are commendably left open-ended, but little room for doubt is left in the matter of Soderbergh’s skill as a filmmaker. I wish him the best of luck professionally, but part of me hopes he accepts his limitations and continues to exploit them for the benefit of film audiences. We need more films like Magic Mike, and I suspect Soderbergh’s smart enough to recognize that he’s got a knack for them.