**1/2 out of ****
(for language and some crude comments)
Released: August 18, 2017
Runtime: 119 minutes
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Seth MacFarlane, Hilary Swank, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Farrah Mackenzie
Critics are gushing like fanboys over Logan Lucky, the return of director Steven Soderbergh to the big screen following a self-imposed retirement that lasted all but four years (in which he produced an entire TV series, The Knick).
I embrace the comeback, too, one that seemed inevitable, but it’s harder for me to give a pass for the loose, at times lazy movie that marks it. One wonders, had this been Soderbergh’s last film before retiring instead of his first one after it, if the consensus reception would’ve been “yeah, it kinda seems like he’s ready to”.
Simply put, Logan Lucky is the kind of movie that Soderbergh can make in his sleep, and it often feels like that’s exactly what he’s done.
Truth be told, Logan Lucky exists for an endgame beyond itself. Soderbergh is back because he’s devised a way to make movies outside of the studio system on a mid-range budget, the kind that studios have all but abandoned, too small and marginal for Hollywood but also too big for indie investors to wholly finance. (You can read more about it here on Salon.)
The endeavor could be game-changing. The movie, not so much.
A white trash Ocean’s Eleven, this hillbilly heist is well-worn territory for Soderbergh, one where you can still see some of his strengths. The most obvious is the intricate construction of the heist itself, an underground robbery of the Charlotte Motor Speedway on its busiest day of the year. It’s a marvelously conceived concoction that, once set in motion, almost makes up for the dirge it takes to get there. (Almost.) It boasts clever turns with unexpected altruism.
The unfortunate surprises are new weaknesses. When Soderbergh goes commercial, his capers are taut machines. It’s his experimental efforts that breathe more, sometimes cryptically, but always with intent. Here, however, the reins are slack. Logan Lucky is a two-hour movie that has no business being longer than 90 minutes.
Amiable to a fault, the first hour is often lethargic, establishing characters that aren’t really interesting or unique, belaboring setups beyond necessity, and rolling out rural tropes right down to kindergarten beauty pageants, all played with caricatured performances that lay the Appalachia on too thick to ever become endearing.
The southern fried shtick of the all-star cast is forced, with up-and-coming Riley Keough (granddaughter of Elvis Presley) being about the only one who feels authentically connected to this world. Channing Tatum does, too (and should, given his poor youth in the South), but the conventional script doesn’t do him any favors (dialogue especially).
Everyone else feels like a fish out of water, not least of which is Soderbergh himself. Broad and simplistic, Logan Lucky plays like an outsider’s hunch of what NASCAR Nation is like.
There’s affection for these people, not condescension, and even some genuine humanity, but it’s never actually convincing. Soderbergh stumbles in a niche subculture more suited for the Coen Brothers, unable to modulate performances or his straightforward tone in a way that reveals layers beneath the surface quirk.
Soderbergh’s heart doesn’t seem to be in the filmmaking either. The saturated, at times moody color palette is definitely his, but it’s shot more workmanlike, lacking visual inspiration, and edited the same way.
Logan Lucky, then, isn’t a passion project that compelled Soderbergh back to the movies; it’s an easy endeavor, squarely in the filmmaker’s wheelhouse, that plays strictly for commercial appeal. Aiming for box office isn’t selling out but, in this case, it’s the safest means to an end for a start-up venture. The cast isn’t so much acting for Soderbergh as doing him a big favor.
The meta-con here is that Logan Lucky is a film that exists to prop up a new business model. As a moviegoer, you’d prefer that it’d work the other way around.