Jus’ Funnin: In praise of the Channing Tatum smirk

The man who is Magic Mike possesses one of the most brilliant acting power moves on the block.


David Jenkins


I have a good friend who, like many, is entrenched in the world of Channing Tatum fandom. I have received DM images of her office notice board covered in glossy cut-outs of Tatum in various stages of undress. She has a ritual in the lead-up to any forthcoming Tatum vehicle, where she will pointedly avoid reviews or profiles so as not to taint the purity of her Tatum experience. She will often check with me in advance as to when review embargos are set to drop so she’s ready to shift into “stealth mode” (delete Twitter).

Maybe it’s down to the nature of our relationship, but we’ve never really gone into any depth as to the nature of this devotion whose intensity does not appear to be at all subject to the fluctuating quality of the films in which he stars. It would be understandable to read it as a vicarious erotic fascination, which is something that self-aware Tatum plays with and reflects back at his audience in his trio of Magic Mike films. Yet it could be more focused on aspects more chaste, such as the unique tics which have helped him to carve out his own niche as a performer or rare intuitiveness and quality.

It could be down to the ambient influence exerted by this friend and the conversations we’ve had about Tatum and his career, but I have recently come over to her way of thinking about this paragon of screen magnetism. As the face of the early Step Up dance films, sundry passable action romps (GI Joe, White House Down), the stupendous Jump Street movies and a handful of interesting indie projects, he’s always been someone whose presence in a film was certainly welcome, even if he wasn’t the central draw of a project.

The mystery of that allure began to unravel with the Magic Mike films, but the penny finally dropped with the charming Tatum and Reid Carolin road comedy, Dog, from 2022. And it’s the smirk that seals it. The smirk in question is a subtle facial tremble that Tatum repeatedly employs between delivering lines of dialogue, usually when he’s being filmed reacting to another actor. It’s a purse of the lips and light tensing of the jowl muscles, often combined with a rakish raising of the eyebrows. As an actor, it’s Tatum’s power move, allowing him to often transform banal dialogue exchanges into fruity back-and-forths.

These smirks are a sign of availability – both suggestive physical availability and immediate emotional availability. They signify a wry acknowledgement of the inherent unreality of making a film, almost like Tatum is permanently alluding to the essential absurdity of what he and his fellow performers are doing. Yet, at the same time, they operate as an anchor to some element of hard realism and not only Tatum’s deep immersion into a character, but his connection to the other characters.

In the majority of his recent films, Tatum has played variations of an idealised self: aggressively avuncular; instantly personable; self-deprecating to a tee. There’s no method-acting bullshit, and no Oscar-reel histrionics. His modus operandi as a performer is for the character to exist as someone you would be endeared to rather than be impressed by (although there are obvious impressive aspects of his physical turns as Magic Mike). Those being uncharitable might see Tatum as someone who lacks the seriousness to be so closely involved with The Seventh Art, but there’s far more fine texture and meta-cinematic ambiguity to his performance style than other serial smirkers such as Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Rudd.

Tatum’s most recent film, Magic Mike’s Last Dance, is probably a mid-table work within his illustrious cine-corpus, but his presence is more than enough to paste over some of the most egregious formal cracks. His displacement (being in London), his surprise at being spirited away by a wealthy dowager (Salma Hayek Pinault), and his relationship with the dowager’s old-beyond-her-years daughter (Jemelia George​​) all mean that there’s lots of opportunity to engage in his patented cheeky repartee.

I’m sure my pal will have a swell enough time with it, but Tatum is one of those rare movie stars where you actually hope he’ll play those same characters who are all soft extrapolations of his own persona. Let’s hope that his upcoming role in Zoë Kravitz’ Pussy Island as a loved-up tech mogul who haunts the eponymous cocktail bar places Tatum’s natural qualities to the fore. To be honest, it’s reached the point where story and character development barely matter, as long as Tatum gets to smirk his ass off.

Published 10 Feb 2023

Tags: Channing Tatum

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