You may be wondering why all the advance press about Steven Soderbergh's return to feature filmmaking after a well-publicized "retirement" in 2013 has focused on the film's distribution business plan. I, too, wondered about this, but allowed my excitement about the return of one of my all-time favorite directors to shout down the quandary.
Then I saw the film.
Logan Lucky is a caper movie that combines the style and sensibility of Soderbergh's biggest crowd pleasers (Ocean's Eleven, Out of Sight) with the dusty Southern outlaw vibe of 1970s films like White Lightning or Moonrunners. The result is an odd hybrid of masterful filmmaking and a kind of culture jamming impulse that walks a tightrope between savviness and condescension.
Actually, condescension isn't quite right. But the red state drag show that Soderbergh has convened here feels not merely unconvincing, but a tiny bit uncomfortable, too.
That is to say: a bunch of fantastically talented and beautiful movie stars (Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Daniel Craig) working really hard to seem at home in NASCAR America, where the American flag battles camo for fashion primacy, where people play toilet seat horseshoes, and an interminably melismatic rendition of "America the Beautiful" by LeAnn Rimes as Blue Angels roar overhead brings grown men to tears.
It's a stretch.
Tatum (Soderbergh's De Niro... or maybe his DiCaprio?) plays Jimmy Logan, a perfectly well-meaning single dad in West Virginia who gets fired from his job on a construction/excavation site when his foreman sees him walking with a limp—preexisting condition. Jimmy enlists his slow-talking bartender brother Clyde (Driver), whose preexisting condition is the forearm he lost in Iraq, his hairdresser sister Mellie (Keough), and a motley assortment of accomplices to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway on the day of the Coca-Cola 600, thus breaking the Logan family curse.
The heist, like the ones in Soderbergh's Ocean's series, is elaborately planned, constructed, and executed, and all of Logan Lucky's comedy, drama, and tension arise from the ingeniously plotted network of obstacles, misdirections, and hiccups that stand between our heroes and their quarry.
Unlike the Vegas-based jobs in those earlier films, however, it's the lowest of low-tech operations, made of the same shoddy materials as the rest of the characters' Walmart lives. This makes for some excellent visual gags (a bomb-making primer involving a plastic grocery bag is especially inventive) and a prevailing air of mischief. It's also a very conspicuous way for Soderbergh to comment on his own past without disowning it. He seems to be having fun, which is great news if you like him in fun mode.
And yet, the podunk milieu in which Logan Lucky is set feels overstated, like a New Yorker taking a selfie in front of a Stuckey's. It's not that the wardrobe and production design aren't accurate—with their bulk tubs of cheese puffs, baseball cap logos, and camo rainbow—it's that they're too accurate. The film is having it both ways, flaunting the garish, rural tackiness while playing it for laughs. Look at these rednecks. These noble rednecks.
Many of the actors, Tatum and Driver most notably, struggle mightily with their accents. Though both Tatum and Soderbergh are Southern-born, Keough—in a purely Daisy Duke role—is the only person in the film who sounds like she's even flown over West Virginia or either Carolina. Maybe it's her Elvis Presley DNA.
Craig fares better with the dialect, but he also has a bleach job that looks like it gets touched up every 12 hours at $500 a pop—not easy for a man in prison. Seth MacFarlane, who always ruins everything anyway, is spectacularly poor as an energy-drink magnate with terrible hair and the worst British accent you've heard since your high-school drama club reenacted the dead parrot sketch. When Dwight Yoakam shows up as the warden, you almost cheer to see someone who's actually Southern.
But the real question throughout is this: What makes this material—and, more to the point, this community—interesting to Soderbergh? It can't be as facile as building bridges between the libtard bubble and Trump-merica—either culturally or commercially. And if it were, the film would be a failure, because all you see is the chasm.
No, I think Logan Lucky is an argument for formalism, and the durability of genre. It makes the case that a commercial feature film can be fun and profitable regardless of what—or who—it's about, if you do it properly.
It's a compelling case, too. It's just not quite the right film.