The Movie Club
Entry 8: Channing Tatum's great year, and Taylor Kitsch's terrible one.
Still of the film John Carter
Here’s what I want: McConaughey’s oiled pecs. At 48 frames per second. In 3-D. For $16 a ticket.
McConaughey has labored to find a persona that works both for him and for an audience. He’s aged into himself, and we’ve aged into him. In 1996, he was presented to us the way Julia Ormond and Gretchen Mol were: as products the movie industry invented, packaged, and sold. But he was too sleazy for stardom in 1996 and '97 and '98. Spielberg and Zemeckis cast him as these figures of piety and virtue, and seeing him with that hair and hearing use that sexed-up drawl on African slaves and Jodie Foster, you just laugh, especially now. It was never acting at the beginning of his career. It was always Halloween. Of course part of the reason we still have him and not Ormond or Mol is that movie sexism is pernicious and sucks.
Anyway, back then, we couldn’t have known that McConaughey really was the creep outside the Emporium pool hall trying to score high school girls. He eventually found a way to bend romantic comedies to his druggy, slutty conceitedness. And now he’s come out on the other side. We like The Lincoln Lawyer and Killer Joe and Magic Mike because they’re the truth to the lies Contact and Amistad were peddling. Even when Matthew McConaughey’s being good, a kind of lasciviousness comes through and stains all his principles like sweat on silk. Stephanie, I don’t use “trash” as some kind of demarcation that separates the so-called lowbrow from the high. I use it as a genre of moviemaking with its own special pleasures and properties, and I’d like here and now to crown McConuaghey as that genre’s king. If we want this man—and we do now—we don’t want him fulsome and half-cocked. We want him fully plumed and fulminating.
Channing Tatum turned a different corner last year. McConaughey gained respectability by being disreputable. Tatum is more like Pinocchio, cute wood that turned into an adorable man. 21 Jump Street did it for me. The movie was a stoopid comedy whose every joke managed to contain a joke or two more, and Tatum was in on all of them. I didn’t laugh at anything as hard as I did when he and Jonah Hill take that party drug and try to play it straight—the cutaways to their freak-outs are just glorious gonzo comedy. I left that movie excited to see what else Tatum would do. Having just typed that, I also feel bad for the Bizarro Tatum: Taylor Kitsch. Kitsch easily could have been in any of the 23 movies Tatum was in. Instead made Battleship and the absurdly over-hated but admittedly flavorless John Carter (that movie is what happens when Avatar starts taking its medication). Conversely, Tatum could have been in both movies and they would have been hits. He became a bigger deal by flashing a sense of humor. I mean, you have to have one to make something as backward as The Vow. But in just one year and without much to show for it (not even Oliver Stone’s lavish cartel embarrassment Savages), Kitsch might have run out of chances. He wasn’t even lucky enough to live up to his surname.
About The Master and the argument for the “twicer,” I’ve been encouraging people to see it again not because they’re too simple or stupid to appreciate it the first time but because I just think the movie was ill-served by the advance speculation about its being an allegory for Scientology. I also saw the film under some of the worst possible moviegoing conditions and was so disappointed by everything that I arranged to see it again, and found it devastating. Freddie Quell is just a great movie character, a man you or I might see as tragic and who’s being goaded into seeing himself the same way because he can’t make it to wherever the Cause is trying to get him to go. He doesn’t have that kind of soul. At the end of the day, he just wants a nice girl whether she’s made of flesh or sand.
The movie’s about the limits of belief. For some people, it’s just about the limits of Paul Thomas Anderson writing and directing. I’m still speaking to those people, but it’s very hard. At their best, he, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and this rejuvenated Kathryn Bigelow are the most exciting American directors right now, artists who can balance the artistic and the commercial, ambiguity and clarity, whose new work you’re desperate to see. In any case, I don’t know that I would have found Freddie’s brokenness so moving without a second viewing. The same is true for Holy Motors, a movie whose insanity I enjoyed once but whose spirituality overtook me a second time. I don’t know why seeing it again was necessary, but I did it.
I sometimes see movies twice and wish I hadn’t. But a great or very good movie should be able to withstand and reward a second viewing. Argo did that, even with that rigged ending—so suspenseful, so cheap! We should devote some time to Michael Haneke’s Amour, which I’ve also seen twice and found even more harrowing the second time than the first. Haneke is a great film artist who’s made a movie that hasn’t divided audiences in half the way his films tend to: Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Caché, two versions of Funny Games, The White Ribbon. I don’t know that that’s an achievement, although the movie itself certainly is.
His detractors find him doomy and punitive, but the dread that his bleakness produces in me is viscerally appealing, the way a roller coaster’s climb to that first drop is. No one in the movies writes worst-case scenarios the way Haneke does. This new one has caught on because there’s an acknowledgement of transcendent, transfixing holiness in it that’s unprecedented for him.
I think most of us like this movie. Do we all like him?
Wesley Morris is a staff writer at Grantland.