‘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,