June 18, 2013

Falling In Love With Channing Tatum Via MAGIC MIKE

"Does this look distressed?"
No, this was not a Wife's Choice.  In fact, Jamie hated the movie far more than I did.

For years the line on Channing Tatum was that he was one of those guys who "killed in the room," which is to say that when he sat down with casting directors or producers he was charming and funny and likable and (obviously) good looking.  Putting him in your movie seemed like a no brainer.  But once cameras started rolling it was Tatum himself who appeared to lack brain activity.  He came off stiff, boring and he had no chemistry with anyone.  The guy was pretty much unwatchable.

When I tell that story to my future kids, they're never going to believe me.

Just a few years later Tatum is not only watchable, he's magnetic.  He's got personality oozing out his perfect cheekbones and on top of all that he's fucking hilarious.  In fact, I find myself inordinately excited for movies like White House Down simply because of Tatum's presence.  There are two movies we can credit for suddenly propelling his career to the next level and they were both released in 2012.  The first is Phil Lord and Chris Miller's brilliant 21 Jump Street, one of the funniest movies released that year.  The second is Steven Soderbergh's stripper anthem Magic Mike.

In Jump Street Tatum is paired with Jonah Hill, playing a physically adept but intellectually stunted cop.  Hill does the real emotional heavy lifting in the film, leaving Tatum free to look cool in the action scenes and be generally hilarious.  That's not to minimize his comedic skills; before Jump Street you could not have convinced me that the man would be able to match humorous wits with Carrot Top, let alone Jonah Hill.  But you can tell that, as opposed to something like G.I. Joe: Rise Of Cobra, the pressure is largely off here.  Tatum is absolutely essential to the film's greatness but he doesn't have to carry the thing single-handedly.  Without that weight on his shoulders, he's able to really loosen up and be the guy who wins over producers so easily.

There's a similar factor at play in Magic Mike.  The script by Reid Carolin was largely influenced by Tatum's own experiences as a Florida stripper before he got into modeling and later acting.  The fact that he's in a familiar world here goes a long way towards elevating Tatum's comfort on camera, but so does the copious amount of dancing.  Just like we all go to Michael Bay movies to see shit explode, a big part of the draw here is seeing good looking, muscular dudes show off their assets on stage.  But this isn't just grinding and ass-shaking, this is legitimate dancing with impressive choreography and Tatum is more than equipped handle the challenge.  He and the other dancers really shine whenever they're up in front of the screaming ladies of Tampa, dressed in a variety of amusing costumes that range from Tarzan to cowboys to Tatum's shirtless paramilitary getup.

Again, it's as if knowing that he's got a handful of ace dance numbers up his sleeve gives Tatum the freedom to be himself throughout the scripted stuff.  He's got an easy, almost goofy charm as Magic Mike that makes you simply fall in love with the guy as he struggles to leave the stripping life behind in favor of his dream career of designing and building custom furniture.  He's got two love interests in the form of Olivia Munn as his frequent booty call and Cody Horn as the sister of his protege "The Kid" played by Alex Pettyfer.  Tatum has an easy rapport with both actresses and the relationship with the no-nonsense Horn (who's a dead ringer for Missy Peregrym) works precisely because it's kept to a minimum.  We don't get any of the cliched, expected story beats given the set-up (they fall for each other, her brother gets pissed and lashes out, etc) and it never feels like the story hinges on whether or not they get together.  All they have to do is make each other laugh and look hot walking on the beach.

Then again, the story doesn't really hinge on much of anything, which is precisely what drove Jamie up a wall.  The movie sort of meanders around a couple of half-hearted plotlines without ever focusing on any of them.  There's Mike's furniture-based aspirations, his constant hustling at a half dozen jobs, his mentorship-turned-rivalry with The Kid, his double edged relationship with Matthew McConaughey's Dallas* and his romance with The Kid's nurse sister.  Throw in a drug overdose and a violent shakedown with some dealers and you end up with a collection of vapor stories that never quite coalesce into a full-blown plot.  I enjoyed Tatum's performance and Soderbergh's sharp eye enough that I was willing to overlook it to a certain degree, but I can see why Jamie found it so frustrating to watch.  But in a way that seems like an even bigger test of an actor's ability.  Can they give a performance that elevates a mediocre script into a movie worth watching?**  That takes a special kind of something.

I think that Tatum has a lot of room to grow and I mean that in the best way possible. He can clearly handle both comedy and action.  Careers have been built on far less.  I'm actually curious to see Tatum really start to stretch himself dramatically in the future.  He recently did nice work in the high school reunion flick 10 Years, and perhaps he'd benefit by doing some more ensemble pictures where he can soak in the work of some talented veterans.  He was pushed into starring roles pretty quickly when he might have been better served by paying his dues and slowly working his way up the Hollywood ladder.  But I think that the driven aspect of Magic Mike, the guy who's always working and willing to go in any direction and seize any opportunity to achieve his goals is also true of Tatum himself.  He certainly doesn't seem interested in coasting on his success and the guy seems up for just about anything, as evidenced by his absurd appearance in one of this summer's biggest comedies.  Tatum's got the Wachowskis' sci-fi epic Jupiter Ascending coming next year and, after being totally floored by Cloud Atlas, I'm fascinated to see what kind of performance Andy and Lana are able to coax out of him.  No matter where Tatum goes from here, it's sure to be an interesting journey.

And I'm totally on board.

*Also not to be undersold is McConaughey's performance.  Dallas is one of those roles that simply couldn't be played by anyone else - for shit's sake, at one point he comes out on stage with bongos.  The guy is on a cinematic hot streak the likes of which I've never seen and right now I'm just enjoying the ride...

**To be clear, Tatum is only half the reason Magic Mike works as well as it does.  The other half is Soderbergh, whose direction and cinematography are frankly superb.  His adoption of the digital aesthetic really works here, with the dark sheen of the strip club standing in stark contrast to the hazy golden Florida exteriors.

Title: Magic Mike
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn, Matthew Bomer, Joe Manganiello
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: HBO HD

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