I recently watched “Magic Mike,” the well-reviewed Soderbergh film about a male stripper who struggles to pull himself up by his bootstraps. First, I’ll say that the movie was good – worth seeing. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Soderbergh is one of the best directors in Hollywood – top five easy – and as is the case with all of his films, “Magic Mike” is impeccably executed. Strong script, sophisticated directing and editing, top-notch choreography, etc. etc. All the nuts and bolts are in place for an entertaining experience. Second, contrary to public opinion or perception, this film is much more of a rags-to-riches tale than it is a story of male stripping. Think of it as a sports movie - seriously.
Now, with the basics out of the way let’s talk about Channing Tatum, the talented actor who embodies the memorable Magic Mike. He’s not just the star of this film. As noted in this recent Grantland piece, Tatum is also a rising star in Hollywood. His four hotly anticipated 2012 films say so, his impressive filmography dating back to his breakout role in 2006’s “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” says so, and, yes, his dimples say so too.
Why? Why is Tatum such a bright and shiny rising star? Well, watching Tatum in “Magic Mike” the word ‘charm’ comes to mind. He has charm or charisma. He’s not a thespian, or a genius, or an unpredictable and volatile personality like Charlie Sheen. He’s not even a particularly great actor (though he’s steadily improving and can clearly carry a film as the lead). What he does have though is that intangible element known as charm.
Now charm is a notoriously difficult concept to define, to articulate. And I'm not going to twist myself into a knot trying to explain it. I’ll simply cop-out and say that we tend to think of ‘charm’ as an umbrella term that houses many different appealing character traits and tendencies like affability, sexiness, bravery and intelligence – just to name a few colors of the charm rainbow.
Watching Tatum on screen for 110 minutes (he’s in every scene so there’s plenty of opportunity to observe him), I was particularly struck by his physical charm - an idea that can perhaps be more precisely thought of as kinesthetic intelligence. His body movement; that’s right, not his dimples, or his sickeningly statuesque body or the smooth sounds of his made-for-radio voice - his body movement. He has lots of body intelligence, and it makes him charming. I mean this in both obvious and non-obvious ways.
The obvious way: From the very first scene of the movie it’s suggested that Magic Mike is a particularly excellent male stripper. We see a few flashes of brilliance early on, but we aren’t fully introduced to Magic Mike in his entirety, his full glory, until halfway through the film. Here, there’s a scene where Brooke (played by a refreshing Cody Horn), the potential romantic interest and ‘outsider looking in’ with whom we as an audience will most easily identify, walks into the strip club and watches Magic Mike perform his, um, act. And what a performance it is. She’s initially uncomfortable. But she soon becomes mesmerized, than infatuated, than aroused. By the end of the five-minute clip she has decided to feel anxious and apprehensive about the fact that she's so aroused. And having watched her watching Mike we understand why.
Mike moves with athleticism, with confidence, with a relentlessly smooth slickness. At first we can barely look away because we want to see if we can catch him in a slip-up; after a few seconds we realize he’s too good for that. His movements are too precise and his body is having too much fun. We relax and enjoy the fact that we’re along for the ride. And it’s not just that Tatum can flexibly contort his 220 pound frame into a pretzel, it’s that he moves without an ounce of self-consciousness and seems to burst at the seams with a willingness to perform, to amaze, to get better. We sense that he could conduct a flawless backflip at a moment’s notice, in any situation.
Non-obvious: That feeling we get watching Tatum perform his ‘Magic Mike’ act in the strip club, well, it’s almost the same feeling we get watching him stroll along the beach in the ‘getting to know Brooke’ scenes or, watching him navigate a rooftop in his ‘construction worker-day job scenes.’ His body just pulls you in - and you're left wondering what the hell is so interesting about watching him walk from point A to point B, and knowing on some abstract level that it's definitely something.
There’s a charm, a physical charm to Tatum that is reflected in what is clearly a high or above-average kinesthetic intelligence (see a more precise definition here. I think of it in the sense that a body has a mind of its own in the way that it moves through space and can coordinate its actions. The central hub to that mind is kinesthetic intelligence).
I think this physical charm is Tatum’s most valuable asset, the greatest explanatory factor for his success. And I think that’s why his most physical role to date – “Magic Mike” – is also his most accomplished.