The Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, who has had the most interesting career of any hotshot American filmmaker over the past quarter-century, is tired, he says. Tired of making movies. He’s either going to retire or take a sabbatical. This is a very strange thing for Soderbergh to say. He first started saying it a year ago, and has made three movies since. Three.
The man makes movies the way other people tweet. He has the kind of creative output most artists can only dream of. Soderbergh bounces between little indie projects and big Hollywood fare; he is so skilled behind the camera (he often photographs his own movies) that he can do both with impressive economy and control. In the big-budget arena, he made the superb all-star medical-catastrophe thriller Contagion for an astonishing $60 million; any other director would have brought it in at twice the price.
In theaters right now is a peculiar low-budget project called Magic Mike, a character study of a male stripper who wants to be a furniture maker—an initially interesting but eventually stultifying mixture of Flashdance and Shampoo, with a dash of the terrific and forgotten 1976 picture called Lifeguard thrown in the mix. Though Magic Mike is set in the present, Soderbergh consciously echoes the dilatory, slightly pot-addled 1970s movies of the now-forgotten Hal Ashby, who made Shampoo, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and Being There in an unprecedented hot streak over eight years as he was frying his own brain with drugs and alcohol.
Magic Mike is 30 minutes of story with about 80 minutes of well-built guys dancing badly, pseudo-orgies, and an intolerable Matthew McConaughey redefining the term “overacting” as he practically opens his mouth wide enough to swallow the camera on several occasions.
It follows an equally peculiar project called Haywire, a no-holds-barred action picture about assassins starring a gorgeous mixed-martial-arts champion named Gina Carano. Haywire didn’t do very well, but Magic Mike—which features star-of-the-moment Channing Tatum—exploded at the box office its first weekend. It cost $7 million and earned $40 million; it will end up making $100 million at least.
The odd thing is that such works would seem to be passion projects for Soderbergh—or at least enjoyable experiments. Otherwise, why would he bother with them? Certainly they allow him to indulge what one might gently call a certain sexually obsessive nature; among his little works are two porn-obsessed movies, Full Frontal and The Girlfriend Experience, and Magic Mike begins nonchalantly with the title character engaged in a threesome.
“One of the things I like about the story,” he said in a recent interview at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, “is that none of us wanted to be punitive about the ways people pleasure themselves.” How nice.
So what on earth is he griping about, with all this talk of burnout and wanting to do something else and be a different kind of filmmaker, blah blah blah? Well, that is an interesting question. Four years ago, he released a two-film portrait of Che Guevara starring Benicio Del Toro. Heard of it? You probably haven’t, and the experience of making it and having it bomb on release seems to have taken the wind out of Soderbergh’s sails.
In the Film Society interview, he says he took on Magic Mike because “I had no desire to spend 10 months working on something that was going to be a downer. After Che, I felt I had gotten the important movie s— out of my system.” When the interviewer protests, he elaborates: “Self-important would be a better way to put it. Stuff that’s conceived with an eye toward an all-categories trade ad at the end of the year.” (“All-categories trade ad” is a reference to Oscar-bait films designed to suggest to Academy voters that they nominate those films in all categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Communist Guerrilla.)
So, the two Ches were “self-important . . . stuff . . . conceived” to win Oscars. As a result, he decided to retreat into genre material—a thriller like Contagion, an action picture like Haywire, and a striver-on-the-edges-of-showbiz story like Magic Mike. In other words, Soderbergh went off to create a hagiography of a 20th-century monster, found the whole thing unsettling, and decided he needed to live an entirely new life.
He seems to have had the kind of disillusioning experience with a Communist icon that suggests he might be ripe for political conversion. Someone hand that man a copy of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness! Jon Voight gave it to David Mamet, and he went right-wing. Of course, Soderbergh will have to drop the threesomes. We don’t do that sort of thing over here.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.