Logan Lucky is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
Steven Soderbergh is back, but have we really missed him? His last feature was 2013's Side Effects, a derivative and soulless thriller that Soderbergh—somewhat unconvincingly—announced would be his last feature, since he had decided to retire from directing.
It is bad form to quote my own reviews, but in this case it is expedient, since my feelings about Mr. Soderbergh's career as a director have not changed in the intervening four years:
Once the wunderkind who inspired an independent film renaissance with 1989's sex, lies, and videotape, Soderbergh has spent the quarter century since proving—to my satisfaction, at least—that he is that most frustrating of creative types: one with a startling surplus of talent but a limiting lack of personal vision. While other critics have marveled at his "versatility"—happily following him from one Hollywood genre picture to another—I've watched his career with impatience and frustration, wondering if the real Steven Soderbergh was ever going to show up and reveal himself. Somewhere around Contagion I finally accepted that this Jack of All Trades, Master of None was the real Steven Soderbergh. He was a talented voice, but he had nothing in particular to say. He could do any kind of picture—Caper flick! Medical disaster movie! Martial arts film! Noir!—except the kind we'd never seen before. He was a gifted filmmaker, but he would never be an artist, and maybe it was unfair to expect him to be one.
None of which is to say that I have not enjoyed a few of Soderbergh's movies: certainly, in films like The Limey, Oceans 11, and Out of Sight, he proved that he was capable of bringing technical panache to even the most shallow pastiche. Like his generational and spiritual counterpart Quentin Tarantino, however—but lacking even Tarantino's childish-but-interesting ambition to provoke—Soderbergh is a gifted student of filmmaking to a fault. He doesn't even make movies that are about movies: he just makes movies from other movies. That he does so with competency and flair is admirable, but it does not justify Soderbergh's inexplicable reputation as an A-list director, and it does not alleviate the frustration of watching his increasingly diminishing returns.
Soderbergh has stayed busy—he has worked as a producer, and directed all 20 episodes of The Knick on Cinemax—but Logan Lucky is the first film to tempt him out of his self-imposed retirement from cinema. This alone made it cause for curiosity and cautious optimism. Long sabbaticals can be centering and rejuvenating, after all: had Soderbergh spent his deciding who he really was as a director, and what he wanted to say?
As it turns out, the answer is "No." Soderbergh's dubiously anticipated comeback turns out to be a doubling-down on pastiche, nothing more or less than a redneck Oceans 11. (Soderbergh seems to think acknowledging this lineage within the universe of the film will temper our disappointment—a newscaster refers to the film's central heist as "Oceans 7/11"—but that only succeeds in reminding us that Logan Lucky is a third-generation derivation of something that was itself derivative.)
Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, once a promising high-school football star, now a down-on-his-luck West Virginian construction worker. After he loses his job—and after his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) threatens to move out-of-state with their adorable daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie)—Jimmy concocts a scheme to rob the nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway: he has been working construction on the site, you see, and has a plan to access the system of pneumatic tubes the Speedway uses to move its money around.
For this he enlists his laconic, one-armed brother Clyde (Adam Driver), an Iraq-War veteran turned bartender; their sister Mellie (Riley Keough), a hairdresser and aspiring getaway driver; and Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), a bleach-blonde goofball who happens to be a demolitions expert, and also happens, inconveniently, to be in prison.
Logan Lucky is far from the worst experience I've had in a movie theater this summer: it's a snappy enough heist film, with a nearly faultless cast. (I say "nearly" because I must leave room to berate the insufferable Seth MacFarlane, who turns up as an obnoxious race-car sponsor sporting a mustache and accent that would both be unconvincing in the 12:55 slot on Saturday Night Live.)
But the film is a queer concoction: the marketing presents it as a Coen-Brothers style redneck comedy, and a few of the characters and situations would not be out of place in one of the Coens' lesser but passable works. (Craig, in particular, is clearly enjoying the opportunity to break out of the stoic straightjacket of his usual typecasting and swing broadly for the comedy fences.) But half of the cast seemingly didn't get the memo about what kind of film they're supposed to be in. (In general, the women play it straight—Keough is especially good—while the men seem more cartoonish.) A rather sweet (if overly sentimental) subplot between Jimmy and his daughter makes for a respectable effort to humanize the main character, but it's about the only such emotion in a film that otherwise maintains a patronizing distance from all of its characters.
And the screenplay by Rebecca Blunt—a first-time screenwriter who may or may not actually exist—is not really structured or styled like a comedy: there are a few funny moments, but Logan Lucky is much more of a straightforward heist film than it appears, closely following all the familiar beats—including the third-act twist, and the sequel-baiting coda—that we've seen a thousand times before. There's a definite tonal mismatch between the movie and its marketing, and there are additional disconnects within the film itself. But whatever Logan Lucky thinks it is—and that's never completely clear—it's never quite as fun as we want it to be.
The only factor that makes Logan Lucky anything but Oceans 14—with all the diminishing returns that title implies—is its red-state setting and aesthetic. But there is nothing particularly admirable about Soderbergh slumming in the sticks. There is a definite air of condescension, in fact, in his treatment of these working-class heroes and their NASCAR-loving world. Much of the comedy, and all of the last-act surprises, are located in our "surprise" that these apparent hillbillies are not as stupid as they look—a trick that would be more honorable if the first two thirds of the film didn't present them all as stupid hillbillies. (This is one of those films that doesn't play fair with the audience; that's probably to be expected, but I'm not sure it's fair to hide the sleight of hand in redneck stereotyping.)
Most disappointingly, Logan Lucky is another Steven Soderbergh joint that has nothing to say. Tonally, it plays a little like a satire, but what is it satirizing? People from West Virginia? NASCAR fans? Heist movies? Us? Heaven knows, the time is ripe for some cross-aisle conversation between Hollywood and the red states, but there is no real cultural or political insight in this film. (Last year's Hell or High Water is a good example of a genre film infused with both, but Soderbergh exhibits no such understanding of the people or places he's depicting here.)
So, in the end, Logan Lucky is just another Soderbergh riff on better movies, slick and shallow and completely forgettable. It's an odd choice for a comeback, and more than a bit of a letdown. After all, the director came out of retirement for this film; he perhaps concocted a fictional screenwriter for it; he hired actors who agreed to work for scale, and devised an entire studio-free model to distribute it. In short, after four years away from the business, the one-time darling of the independent film world built Logan Lucky as a machine to ensure creative vision.
That's admirable: creative vision is great. Now it would be wonderful to see evidence that Soderbergh still had some.