‘You can be had,’ Mae West said to Cary Grant in She Done Him Wrong, which opened in January, 1933, and that was what the women stars of most of his greatest hits were saying to him for thirty year, as he backed away – but not too far’ writes Pauline Kael in her great essay on the actor, ‘The Man From Dream City’.
Watching the moment in Jupiter Ascending ((Andy and Lana Wachowski, USA, 2015; see clip above), where Mila Kunis is coming on to Channing Tatum only for him to back away — she’s royalty now; he’s half dog, oh but she loves dogs! — made me think of Kael’s argument on Grant. Tatum is the male love object of the film and one of the leading sex symbols of the day. Since the Step Up musicals, it’s a rare film where his body hasn’t been prominently on display. It’s Jupiter’s/Kunis’ desire that Jupiter Ascending expresses . The narrative aligns the desire of the protagonist and that of the audience in that it presents Tatum as the object of desire — elegantly skating through space, often with his shirt off — to both; furthermore it presents Kunis/Jupiter as a point of identification in the narrative and aligns the audience’s gaze with hers. Female expression of desire as depicted in Kunis’ lovely and witty performance and that alignment of the gaze of female star with that of the audience is still so rare in cinema , and rarer still in this particular type of cinema, as to invite commentary, and perhaps incite discomofort.
Writing on Grant and Redford, Kael argued that both were ‘sexiest in pictures in which the woman is the aggressor and all the film’s erotic image is concentrated on (the male).’ Redford, for example, ‘has never been as radiantly glamorous as in The Way We Were, when we saw him through Barbra Streisand’s infatuated eyes.’ Yet a similar moment in Jupiter Ascending, that extracted in the clip above, whilst offering a moment of glee to me personally, doesn’t seem to work in quite the way similar moments worked with Redford or Grant. Clearly Tatum isn’t as debonair; he lacks the lightness; he’s too earnest. However, could it be more than that?
As star personas metamorphise over time, can there be some moments that come too late to work in a work, i.e. is it conceivable that the ‘I love dogs’ moment might have worked better had the film been released after Dear John (Lasse Hälstrom, USA, 2010) and The Vow (Michael Sucsy, USA, 2012) or perhaps as late as Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2012) but pre 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, USA, 2012) and Foxcatcher (Mark Schultz, USA, 2014)? After all, there was a point where one simply went to a movie with Tatum to look at that body in motion. When did it start to matter that he was ‘wet’; that there seemed a cloud of depression perpetually overhanging that pudgy face; that he comes across as not-too-bright (though considering the choices he’s made recently, he can’t be as dumb as he looks); that he seemed to take everything too seriously; that he could be a serious bore; that whereas better romantic comedians like Grant are different with the heroines than they are with anyone else in the film, Tatum can only do ‘sad-serious-and-slow’, or at least until the use of his body brings a different kind of kick and energy to his performance? Was it perhaps that moment when critics began to talk of him seriously as an actor?
Or does that striking moment ‘not working’ simply characterise a film of brilliant ideas that seems also laughably silly pretty much throughout? And yet, I’ve now seen it twice…can it be that we’re not used to seeing sci-fi where the female star is the desiring subject, the active agent, the focus of the film’s drama? Or that we’re not seeing used to seeing sci-fi in such traditional melodramatic terms? Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is a cleaning lady, a migrant born in the middle of nowhere who ends up becoming a queen with the whole of the earth as her personal playground. There’s a wedding interrupted at the last moment and love that has to skate through galaxies , class and ethnic barriers and many disasters before being consummated. There’s also Eddie Redmayne’s excessive, intriguing and camp performance which seems to belong to a different genre. There seem to be all kind of intriguing and brilliant clashes and displacements in the film. Maybe what Jupiter Ascending is providing so brilliantly is so far removed from audience expectation that the only response to that clash is uncomfortable laughter?
Just some thoughts,
I found the trailer for Magic Mike XXL so embarrassing, I put off seeing the film until friends convinced me to. I found it much better than expected and really enjoyable. The audience was almost all women and when Channing Tatum first appears after the credits, they all went ‘Phwoar!’. And that set the tone for the film’s reception, at least with the audience I saw it with, which was almost 98% female.
It’s a very interesting film, very inclusive of difference if slightly confused and confusing as to its racial and sexual politics and, unlike the first one, one very much directed at a female gaze, with Matt Bomer thrown in as a bone to the gay audience. The story is a bit of a mess and it ends abruptly. But I didn’t mind that much. I loved the musical numbers and the way it all feels like Mickey and Judy putting on a show but veering off now towards the burlesque end of showbiz. It’s basically a musical with half naked men in which the wall-flowers get to dance with the prom king whilst gay men are invited to cheer on through scenes in gay bars and Channing Tatum’s character admitting a drag name, even if it is something like Clitoris Labia or some such, and the bodies of course. But it’s all sexless, pretend, ironic and knowing, but earnest too; just like the old musicals but without as much dancing, which is a pity, as the only moment the film seems to really take off and fly into a zone approaching greatness is that moment where Channing Tatum gets taken over by the music and dances with his tools in the shed – it’s really thrilling to see.
The film is very knowing and rather sophisticated in its range of references: Carmen Miranda, the boys camping it up in a vogue-ing contest referencing both Madonna AND Paris is Burning, Joe Manganiello commenting on vampires in The Twilight Saga rather than True Blood, etc. It looks as neon bright as the original with striking and original visual imagery (Steven Soderbergh is the cinematographer); The cast are all adequate but it’s only Bomer who gives any sense of a characterisation: a has-been actor with fading looks and with his only claim to fame working at Disneyworld and a few local commercials, now caught up in new-age philosophies (or crackpot theories) as a way of keeping at bay something that’s dying inside. You can imagine him starring in gay porn the year after the film is set. As to the rest…Andie MacDowell’s loosened up a bit as she’s gotten older but she’s still the worst thing in the film though mercifully she’s not on for long. Joe Manganiello finally gets the part he was denied in the first film though doesn’t bring the spark, theatricality, or star quality Matthew McConaughey brought to the original. Channing Tatum always looks like someone’s slapped him hard and he doesn’t know what to say. Only Jada Pinkett-Smith, in today’s equivalent of the old Madam-with-a-heart-of-gold role, stands out. She is dazzling (though even she has been better in Gotham).
I find it difficult to come to a conclusion as to what the film’s about other than ‘you’re ok, I’m ok, we’re all beautiful inside and we all deserve to be treated like queens no matter how we look or what’s happened to us’, all of which is pretty Oprah….but then that Channing Tatum starts to dance to an inventive choice of music (true throughout the film) and the film zooms onto another dimension. I wish it had ventured there more often but it’s a rare film that addresses a female and gay audience in as warm and delightful a manner as this one and I was happy enough to find it as entertaining as I did.
There’s a complex rich movie to be made about the price men pay when they choose to commodify themselves as sexual objects for money; Magic Mike doesn’t explore the theme with any great depth but it is brilliant at depicting the world of male strippers and what choosing to become one might feel like and lead to. The director is having a good time (all those unusual abrupt endings) but I’m not sure the audience is; I certainly didn’t; though like the majority of the people at the theatre, I was very keen to see the display and, if outright fun is denied us, then a much more complex treatment of the subject would have been appreciated.
People turn themselves into sex objects for easy money and lose their youth and future choices in a sea of drugs and easy sex. Big deal. We’ve seen this before. The only difference is that now it’s men rather than women; and that difference — how men charging for a peek at their package, for their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, affects their masculinity, that which should have been central to the film’s exploration — is largely bypassed. The film is too much about the phallus as fun and too little about the effect on those reduced to nothing but its symbolizing function (and only the non-threatening aspects). I would have liked to see more about the tension between the lead characters’ merchandising of the phallus and their own awareness of the fragility of the penis.
Channing Tatum’s got a sculpted body, very lean and lithe, and he moves energetically, but he looks and moves as if enshrouded in a cloud of depression: ‘bitchy-resting face’ on him would seem sparkly. Either he’s never heard of fun or he’s had so much of it already the serotonin has been all used up. Mathew McConaughey is playing the equivalent of the wise-old-whorehouse-madam roles Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford were reduced to near the end of their careers and his success in this part started a career revival that seems in no danger of abating. Alex Pettyfer is lovely to look at and very good; he looks like a model from Attitude but walks like the guy in the pub who’s always yelling ‘oy, mate!’ just before barfing. I felt sorry for Joe Mangianello who reportedly cut his price in order to work with such a distinguished director only to be asked to take off his clothes, oil himself up and get in the background just in front of the extras.
Magic Mike was a big box-office hit and made many critics’ top-ten list at the end of the year. I wished I’d liked it more or at least only a little less than friends I respect who are positively rabid about the film. Perhaps its mysteries will reveal themselves once I see it again on DVD.
In Soderbergh-world, the big city is full of dangerous lesbian killers that prey on soft decent men like Jude Law: Law restores law and re-balances Sodebergh-world by making sure nasty lesbians end up in jail or the insane asylum where they belong, just like in movies from 1945. Side-effects is a handsome, expert film; it’s got interesting things to say about drugs and pharmaceutical companies; but the most entertaining element in it is also what makes its representational politics so very nasty. Law is no longer pretty but who cares about pretty when he can play human and swayed and slightly weak but pushed to fight back and sometimes all of these things simultaneously and transparently? He is superb. Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones seem to relish playing, respectively, women who are not quite in the distress they first appear to be; and women who are not quite in as much control as they initially seem: both are terrific. Channing Tatum is likeable but out of his league; the film itself is occasionally superb but generally unlikeable.
Hair is clearly the most important element of The Vow and Channing Tatum’s must have required a whole retinue of hairdressers. I have seen films that are phonier and dumber but not by much. Rachel McAdams gets top billing and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Is this sad and impoverished ideal what passes for romance in America now?