Don’t call it a comeback (he’s been here for years), but Steven Soderbergh’s self-imposed exile from film directing is officially over, and his inevitable return to the big screen confirms what most of us have known all along: The guy is a lot better at making movies than he is at not making movies.
Hollywood’s most restless iconoclast, Soderbergh couldn’t take a vacation if his life depended on it; his “retirement” was shorter than the break that many major directors routinely take between projects, and during that time he directed two staggeringly great seasons of “The Knick,” executive produced both “Red Oaks” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” and shot one of the defining cinematic experiences of this or any other century, “Magic Mike XXL” (just kidding, he also edited it). He really likes to work, and he’ll go wherever he can work in peace.
In that light, the fact that Soderbergh is moving back to the multiplexes may ultimately say less about him than it does the resurgent viability of mid-budget movies (or the promise of the new financing model that he and his partners are pioneering). Either way, it’s not much of a surprise that he couldn’t stay away from the silver screen, and it’s even less of a surprise that his return is such a lark. Soderbergh doesn’t see himself as an absent hero triumphantly returning to Rome at the hour of its greatest need, he sees himself as Ferris Bueller stealthily slipping back into bed after a busy day of playing hooky. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter — it’s just a relief that he came home.
A silly movie by a serious man who’s refused to become a self-important artist, “Logan Lucky” wants you to think of it as minor Soderbergh (or at least it would if Soderbergh was even the slightest bit concerned about how you contextualize his work). The premise alone, so obviously a Trump country riff on Soderbergh’s biggest film that one character straight up uses the phrase “Ocean’s 7-11,” is enough to position this low-key heist comedy as little more than a joy ride around a familiar track. But if “Logan Lucky” begs you not to take it seriously, that doesn’t mean it lacks real soul.
Shot with the same intimate sterility that has defined so much of Soderbergh’s digital work, the story begins in the depressive hills of West Virginia, where construction worker Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is trying to make ends meet despite one bad leg and 100 years of bad luck. Jimmy’s not all that old, but he’s inherited a family curse that goes back for generations. Maybe that’s why his bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver) seems so unperturbed about losing a hand on his way home from Afghanistan — it’s not as if a Logan boy was ever gonna fight in a war and come home fully intact. Like a lot of Americans (especially the kind of Americans who don’t often get to be in heist movies), Jimmy and Clyde have had to deal with a pretty big mound of bullshit in their lives, but they’re not going to just keep shoveling it forever.
So when Jimmy gets fired from his job in the tunnels beneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway because of some dumb liability reasons involving “in-surance,” he decides to do something about it. He’s not going to get screwed again; he’s not going to let his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) and her car salesman husband (David Denman) price him out of his young daughter’s life by moving to a ritzier neighborhood, and he’s sure as shit not going to let them raise the kid on “Fast & Furious” movies. They live in a world of NASCAR, beauty pageants, and bobbing for pigs feet; a world where physics still apply, everything has a cost, and John Denver will never go out of style. And they like it there.
Naturally, Jimmy and Clyde decide to rob the racetrack. Enlisting their speed demon sister (Riley Keough) as the getaway driver, an incarcerated pyromaniac named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) as the demolition man, and Joe’s two numbskull brothers (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson as Fish and Sam Bang, respectively) as the tech experts, the Logans try to turn their luck around. As with any heist, some parts of the plan are executed better than others: Audibles are called, a hilariously negotiated prison riot breaks out, and Seth MacFarlane shows up as a pompous race car promoter whose British accent is almost as fake as his Kenny G haircut.
In other words, anyone who’s seen one of those “Ocean’s” movies will feel right at home, especially if that one “Ocean’s” movie was the half-baked “Ocean’s Thirteen.” Written by first-timer Rebecca Blunt, the script is as fun and frivolous as anything Soderbergh has tackled before, but a lot more slack than his usual stuff. Robbing an oval of paved cement in Charlotte isn’t quite as complicated as robbing the Bellagio, and while it’s true that the Logans aren’t running the most sophisticated crew in the world, there’s still not all that much for them to do. As a result, the film becomes as much of a hangout as it is a heist, as Soderbergh’s sedate pacing lets his cast sink their teeth into their characters. He gives each of these actors just enough rope to lasso us in, and every single one of them knows how to wrangle it.
Now in his fourth Soderbergh joint, Tatum has quietly become the director’s musclebound new muse, and he strikes the same wonderful note of self-interested sweetness that made him such a joy in “Magic Mike.” Driver has no trouble taking to the film’s deadpan comic tone (working with Jim Jarmusch makes for pretty good practice, in that regard), and his blank stare becomes one of the film’s most consistent rewards. Keough is brilliant, and could shoulder an entire story of her own, but “Logan Lucky” doesn’t give her the time she deserves.
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