Full disclosure: When I started writing this piece, it had the title "What's the Appeal of Channing Tatum?" It wasn't a hit piece, but more of a shrug piece — an honest question about how the hell this guy keeps getting so much work when he seemed so spectacularly bland. Not exotically handsome or all that physically imposing (he's "movie star tall," which probably puts him at about 5'10"), he always appeared on the verge of being acted off the screen by the set décor.
But something started rumbling about midway through the Vince Vaughn/Kevin James comedy The Dilemma and came to a full roar about five minutes into 21 Jump Street.
This guy isn't the blandest movie beefcake, he's the best-looking movie comedian. Cindy Crawford once admitted that she used to chide male models that walked around conspicuously carrying philosophy textbooks. They were so desperate to be taken seriously that they actually appeared more vapid with the obvious effort they were exerting. Movies have seen a rash of pretty boys (all named Taylor) who rush to the latest epic blockbuster or subpar Jason Bourne knockoff because to do anything goofy or self-effacing would be to admit that their breakout role could have been played by foam abs taped to a dolly cart.
So what is Tatum doing right? Three things.
He's Going Full Woody
Although he has some dewy-eyed Nicolas Sparks adaptations and a big-budget action flick based on a toy line under his belt, Tatum is proving that he is well aware of his handsome lunkhead persona and he isn't the slightest bit scared of it. His success seems inexplicable — how can a guy so thoroughly average be the darling of a director like Steven Soderbergh, who enjoyed working with him so much on Haywire that he basically agreed to adapt the kid's life story in the upcoming male stripper movie Magic Mike? But, actually, he's following in the footsteps of Woody Harrelson. Woody so thoroughly owned "moron" characters that people weren't sure where the pretend idiot Woody ended and the real, perhaps-also-an-idiot Woody began. But he was aware of his persona, dove in with both feet, and eventually started doing some knockout work with the likes of the Coen Brothers and Oliver Stone.
He's Making the Right Choices
Sure, it seems easy to say "he's choosing the right projects," but it's actually harder to do than it looks. Building off early buzz (which Tatum had thanks to being the best thing about the small indie A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) doesn't guarantee long-term success (just ask Josh Hartnett, if you can find him). So in between some paycheck-cashing, Tatum took small roles in order to work with big name directors (Michael Mann in Public Enemies, Soderbergh in Haywire) and he's now hitching his comedy wagon to Academy Award-nominee and Judd Apatow hook-up Jonah Hill. That is career savvy you would not expect from a dude with a neck that thick.
He's Enjoying Himself
But what is ultimately pushing Tatum from "Him?" to "Yes, him" is that he is in on the joke and having a blast with it. Maybe because he understands that no one is expecting him to carry the laugh load, he comes across much looser and more relaxed in comedies than he does in dramas. Tatum stole a romantic comedy right out from under Vaughn and James, and he matched a thoroughly in-the-zone Hill joke for joke in an adaptation of a cult TV show that has no right to be as funny as it is. In 21 Jump Street, you actually like his moronic jock cop character because there's some genuine heart that shines through. Some credit is due to the writers for the clever role reversal, with Tatum's former cool kid finding himself out of his element among the eco-friendly, uber-P.C. youth of today, whereas Hill's nerdier character fits right in. But Tatum gets the credit for playing along. The Taylors are so SERIOUS all the time, sweating under the weight of all those un-cracked Nietzsche books. Tatum seems to be realizing that he's being better served at this point by comedy rather than drama or formulaic action, and that's becoming his real appeal. Like 3rd Bass once said (or, technically, sampled), "He is stupid, but he knows that he is stupid and that almost makes him smart. Let's listen."
Now, anybody want to talk about Dave Franco?