Steven Soderbergh at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival. (Steffi Loos / Associated…)
I've long been of the opinion that Steven Soderbergh's imminent "retirement" has all the conviction and permanence of a Brett Favre pronouncement. But assuming the "Magic Mike" helmer means it when he says that he wants to call it a career after two more films (recently shot pharma-thriller The Bitter Pill" and upcoming Liberace biopic "Behind the Candelabra") to concentrate on, um, painting -- and he may or may not actually mean it -- this past weekend offers some pretty good evidence for why he shouldn't retire.
The simple argument comes at the box office, where unlike most of us who are Palm Beach-bound, Soderbergh has lately shown plenty of strength. Outside the trio of star-laden pictures he directed in the "Ocean's" franchise, Soderbergh has had four films that have taken in or will take in at least $75 million. Two of those -- "Contagion" and "Magic Mike" -- will have come out in the last year. (The latter, as my colleague Amy Kaufman wrote, already over-performed with nearly $40 million this past weekend and helped make history on a weekend when two R-rated movies came out simultaneously.)
But it's not just a financial argument. Always one for variety, the filmmaker lately has been mixing it up even more, and to satisfying effect. In fact, while he used to alternate between eccentric independent films and more conventional studio flicks (say, "Solaris" with "Ocean's Twelve"), his studio work has even been bold. Soderbergh's last three studio-financed numbers have gone from a bio-thriller ("Contagion") to a female mixed-martial-arts slugfest ("Haywire") to a gleeful dramedy about male stripping.
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His indie work has been even more out there -- four hours of hanging with a Latin American revolutionary ("Che"), a verite-style female-escort drama starring an adult-film star ("The Girlfriend Experience") and a murder mystery set against the backdrop of a doll-making factory. That last one, "Bubble," is highly watchable; take it from one of the seven people who actually watched it.
Perhaps the only mainstream American filmmaker who's ranged around nearly as much is an earlier version of Steven Soderbergh, who bounced from "sex, lies and videotape" to "Schizopolis" to "Out of Sight." Even he'd be impressed by latter-day Soderbergh.
You could argue that all this audacity comes not in spite of retirement but because of it, the creative abandon of a man with nothing left to lose. I'd submit, having admittedly never served as the director's therapist, that it's less the specter of leaving as it is other creative prompts, like the 2009 debacle in which Sony Pictures executives pulled the plug on his"Moneyball" days before he was about to start shooting. When you tell someone like that he can't do something, it doesn't so much make him mad as bold.
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At the tender filmmaking age of 49, Soderbergh's talk of retirement brings to mind a different, non-Favre-ian sports figure who in his prime announced he was hanging up his jersey: Michael Jordan. Like Soderbergh, the basketball legend also unexpectedly said he was giving up what we loved him for so he could play baseball, or golf, or ukulele, or something. He indeed left briefly. Then he came back to win three more titles.