Steven Soderbergh was supposed to be retired. Well, more accurately, he claimed to be taking a “sabbatical” from directing feature films after the release of HBO’s Behind the Candelabra. Save for directing episodes of TV drama The Knick, he kept to his word. After all, what’s a filmmaker without his or her word? More like an aging boxer or a beloved musical act, I suppose — bouncing from retirement to retirement, never quite able to truly shake the urge to work. Soderbergh’s straits are not quite as dulled as say, an overweight George Foreman nor is he the filmic equivalent of The Who’s 50th farewell tour. His situation is more akin to LCD Soundsystem hitting pause on a successful career out of nowhere. Why quit while you’re ahead?
That Soderbergh would break his cinematic vacation in order to film Rebecca Blunt’s script for Logan Lucky is certainly an eyebrow-raiser. Maybe if so much hadn’t been made of his absence, it wouldn’t be so noticeable how slight this film is. It’s another ensemble heist caper from an auteur who cemented his commercial reputation on ensemble heist films. It’s a Coen Brothers-esque small-town romp filled with eccentric characters and touches of absurdist humor. The Soderbergh canon is chock-full of creative left turns — genre trifles like Haywire sitting comfortably next to ambitious, confounding experiments like Che (if you sat through all of Che in theaters, this Bud’s for you) or The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh is capable of so many different styles and tones, but the chatter around his sabbatical makes an otherwise enjoyable film a mild letdown.
Channing Tatum (back with Soderbergh after their fruitful collaboration on Magic Mike) is Jimmy Logan, a down-on-his-luck blue collar West Virginian with a precocious daughter to take care of and a cliché shrewish ex-wife (Katie Holmes) with a pedantic bourgeois boor for a new husband (The Office’s David Denham, who has made an entire career out of playing clueless middle-class twits).
If this were the 1970s, you could easily imagine Burt Reynolds or even Any Which Way But Loose-era Clint Eastwood playing Tatum’s part. Logan is the working class hero that was so popular during that decade — too charming and clever to stay down forever. His brother Clyde (Adam Driver) is equally snakebit, having lost much of his arm during military service. Clyde has a loopy theory about how the Logan family is cursed to be failures, which includes their hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough). When Jimmy loses his job working construction underneath Charlotte Motor Speedway, he concocts a scheme to rob the place of its concession stand profits during the biggest NASCAR race of the year, curse be damned.
Around all of that is a hint or two of the fraught nature of life in West Virginia — contaminated water, families who can’t afford health care, and rampant unemployment. That’s all subtle background shading, so don’t come into this expecting a comedic version of the J.D. Vance book Hillbilly Elegy, as entertaining as that sounds. The Appalachian setting isn’t important, save for the opportunity it affords actors like Driver and Daniel Craig to try on a southern twang. A lot of the pre-release hype has centered around Craig’s work as demolitions expert Joe Bang, who the Logan brothers spring out of jail to help blow open a subterranean vault. Craig’s is the showy part, the supporting role that gets to have all the fun. He’s probably terribly dashing just trimming his nose hairs, so he has a habit of stealing every scene he’s in. That said, there’s simply not much underneath the bleach-blonde hair and penchant for scarfing down hard-boiled eggs. It’s Driver who, once again, affords what could otherwise be a one-note character with a rich interior life and more than a twinge of palpable melancholy. I’ve never seen an actor so thoroughly fall in love with a prosthetic limb in my entire life.
Once Logan Lucky settles into the comfortable mechanics of the heist genre, the film does not stray too far from formula. The criminals in these movies are always significantly smarter than law enforcement and routinely seem to have thought of every possible action that could take place in a given situation. Thieves in heist movies have to be minor geniuses for the sake of the story. If they weren’t, every heist film would end in about 40 minutes in a hail of bullets. Jimmy Logan’s been toiling away in a mineshaft half his life, but he’s also found time to become a master criminal. Just go with it, I guess.
A half-hearted attempt is made to fashion a love story between Jimmy and a cameo’s worth of screentime from Katherine Waterston, who looks like she filmed her two scenes during a day off from Alien: Covenant. It’s as though someone scribbled “there should be a romance” on the front page of the first draft of this screenplay. At most, the inclusion of Waterston’s character serves to remind the audience that golly, that Jimmy Logan might be a thief, but he sure is swell. It’s not offensive, just wholly extraneous.
Speaking of, I suppose it’s time I discuss the presence of Seth MacFarlane in this movie. He plays an obnoxious British NASCAR team owner who peddles energy drinks as his day job. I will admit that in his first appearance in Logan Lucky, I couldn’t tell it was him, as he hides his recognizable features underneath a gleefully obnoxious mop of hair and a Cheech Marin mustache. I wouldn’t say that qualifies him as the next Peter Sellers, though.
From an angle, he looks like what would happen if someone did an Instagram face swap with Michael Jackson and one of the Mario Brothers. If you think that’s mildly distracting, you’re right. There’s something about MacFarlane’s live-action screen presence that calls attention to itself in the worst way. It happened in A Million Ways to Die in the West, where his performance resembled a pile of plain spaghetti wearing a cowboy hat. Here, his work is so broad and so garish that it’s as though someone tied a bunch of Christmas lights to his body. To be fair, it’s tough to be subtle when playing a coked-out millionaire that looks like an extra from an episode of Welcome Back Kotter stole Eddie Murphy’s outfit from Delirious.
MacFarlane aside, there are laughs to be had in Logan Lucky. It’s generally an amusing film. It’s the kind of small-scale, shaggy dog story Hollywood rarely makes these days. But it’s so amiable that it comes off as inessential, as if LCD Soundsystem came out of retirement and their first new album in years was 15 different variations on “Drunk Girls.” Of course, that might be exactly what you’re after, in which case I say to Steven Soderberg, shut up and play the hits.