There are six or seven scenes in the Coen brothers’ new comedy/noir/musical/period picture/theological cry for help Hail, Caesar! that could be fairly deemed “the best,” but for my money, the best of those bests would be the one that finds Channing Tatum standing atop the fore of a little paddleboat on a moonlit lake. He’s not here for another fleet-footed musical number, his Gene Kelly-aping showstopper has already come and gone, he’s here to receive a submarine. The submersible ship broaches the surface, and after a spoilery conversation, Tatum leaps aboard in one swift jump with nothing more than a dramatic look back at the men with whom he’s rowed out. Tatum, miraculously, is able to hold a straight face through this whole sequence, which is more than you could say of this writer or most of the audience.
As could be said for most of Tatum’s recent output, this scene works primarily because of who’s doing it: Guy jumping onto submarine — not funny. Channing Tatum jumping onto submarine — funny. This is partly because Tatum has a naturally funny face, but also because his role in Hail, Caesar! covertly comments on the persona that the actor has assumed in the public eye over the last half-decade and change, playing him against himself to wonderful comic effect. Ever since 21 Jump Street, he’s been giving two performances per film. Hail, Caesar! stars Channing Tatum as “Channing Tatum” as Burt Gurney.
Tatum began his career as a guileless hunk, attracting roles that drew on both his smoldering appeal as a romantic lead and his virtuosic dance mastery. Step Up was the launching pad for Tatum’s stratospheric rise: he’d meet costar Jenna DeWan (and marry her a few years later), showcase his unparalleled skill as a muscular yet agile dancer in the tradition of Gene Kelly (it’s no coincidence that the Coens stick Tatum in a sailor suit for his big musical number in Caesar!), and he proved that he could keep it together as a studio film’s headliner. 2006 paired that breakout turn with a competent performance in She’s The Man, but neither film makes a particularly strong argument for Tatum as great thespian. There’s just a lot of potential, a memorable face, and a clear drive to please. This, it turns out, would be all he needed.
In the next five years the young star rounded out his resume, taking on a prestige project with a major auteur (he played Pretty Boy Floyd for Michael Mann in 2009’s Public Enemies) and angling for a major franchise gig but only finding one that failed to meet him halfway. (His G.I. Joe films did well enough at the box office, but a lukewarm critical reception and lack of public interest diminished the series’ staying power). He studded his work with the slam-dunk romance projects he was becoming known for, eagerly playing a Sparks heartthrob in Dear John and a Sparksian knock-off in The Vow. But the throughline of sincerity connects all of these performances, with no film challenging Tatum to do more than simply be himself. The subversively self-aware 21 Jump Street, however, asked more of Tatum. He would have to both be himself and know himself.
Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s tautly meta comedy was the first to access Tatum’s persona as an avenue toward self-parody. Posterity would reveal the role of Greg Jenko as the best thing to ever happen to Tatum’s career: He had never been so likable, never seemed so lively, and never given off the impression that he was actually in on the joke. Beginning with that film, he refined his dimwitted hunk persona, adding irony little by little until it became a schtick that he could play against. Tatum seems like a simple man with simple tastes, a nice Southern boy who likes playing in mud and sends emails with dozens of lines of hand-typed cackling. His willingness to exaggerate, subvert, or otherwise make fun of that basic persona has made his recent roles more roundly entertaining and attracted the attentions of some top-notch directors.
21 Jump Street was the turning point, the film where Tatum realized that everything he had been doing — the macho swaggering, the test-dummy kindheartedness — could be really funny if he wanted it to be. As he stormed away from a whiteboard full of lunatic ravings and crowed, “F*ck you, science!” Tatum progressed into the next phase of his career. A quiet savviness has defined most his recent performances, with the straightforwardly rote White House Down as the significant outlier. He played an actual caricature of himself in the self-reflexive This Is The End, being a good sport about his fate as bestial sex slave Channing “Taint-Yum,” but most of his recent roles have copped this same joke, albeit in less literal ways.
Haywire acquainted Tatum with Steven Soderbergh and eventually led to Tatum’s Magic Mike gig, another major get for him. Few directors can walk in both worlds with the finesse of Soderbergh, seamlessly transitioning from independent indulgences to studio fare. They were a perfect couple, Soderbergh bringing out unprecedented depths in Tatum in Magic Mike. The sequel, Magic Mike XXL, works in perfect synchrony with the metamorphosed New Tatum. The film itself embodies the qualities that initially endeared Tatum to audiences, mirroring his overt sexual heat and pumped-up machismo. But XXL extends all of these to their logical conclusion, resulting in an almost cartoonishly sexual, exaggeratedly upbeat film that forges on past ridiculousness through to a plane of pure positivity and entertainment. Both Tatum and XXL know what they are and what they have to offer, and never purport to be anything more than that.
Foxcatcher, Tatum’s most distinguished gig to date, similarly played off of the actorly identity that Tatum brought to the table. The “ungrateful ape” of a wrestler that Tatum portrays evinces the same thick-skulled vibe as Tatum, but director Bennett Miller digs one layer beneath the stonefaced exterior and exposes an adrift soul desperately seeking approval and companionship. Foxcatcher creates drama by effectively deconstructing studio-friendly Tatum and reimagining him as an arthouse-indie Tatum, a wounded soul beneath an all-American showman. As Tatum ages, chances are that he will take on more projects like these. (His reported interest in a currently stalled Evel Knievel biopic from Darren Aronofsky would support this theory.) The words “Academy Award-winner Channing Tatum” may not be as remote a possibility as we think.
It took a little figuring out, but Hollywood caught up to Channing Tatum, and has now turned him into a consistently game character actor with enough star-power to earn a covert supporting role in a Tarantino flick and coax Steven Soderbergh out of heavily scare-quoted “retirement.” Most thrilling of all? With a decade in features, a successful franchise, and a starring role in an Oscar-favored prestige picture all under his belt, he’s just getting started.