Right now, Hollywood pundits are chortling about how maverick director Steven Soderbergh failed to "change the film business" (in the words of a Hollywood Reporter headline). For Logan Lucky, his first film since 2013, the Oscar winner took the unusual step of devising his own marketing strategy. In a particularly egregious act of Hollywood heresy, Soderbergh even released a trailer — which he called a "throwback" in a New York Times interview — without testing it on audiences.
That trailer tells us a lot about Soderbergh's vision for the film; the era it harks back to is the 1970s, when "liberal Hollywood" routinely made amiable comedies about the white working class. For this down-market country cousin to Ocean's Eleven, a comedy about three siblings mounting an elaborate plan to rob a NASCAR speedway, the director concentrated his marketing on red states. Yet the intended audience failed to line up; Logan Lucky earned just $8.1 million in its first weekend.
Why? Perhaps the choice of two new action comedies left theatergoers confused, or perhaps Soderbergh's wacky, stylized trailer — which emphasizes the hillbilly characters' relative dim-wittedness — pissed them off. Either way, Logan Lucky deserves a closer look. While it's overlong and sometimes disjointed, this heist flick delivers genuinely likable characters, winning performances and solid laughs.
Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, whose old football injury has just gotten him fired from his construction job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. In need of cash so he can fight for joint custody of his beloved daughter, he decides to exploit a weakness in the speedway's infrastructure that will allow him to, in effect, rob all the lucrative concessions simultaneously.
The heist plan is ludicrously complicated, but the motley players Jimmy enlists ground the story. Adam Driver is very funny as Jimmy's Eeyore-esque brother, Clyde, who lost an arm in Iraq and likes to wax lugubrious about the family's misfortune. Their speed-obsessed sister, Mellie (Riley Keough), fancies herself a Fast and Furious siren. Best of all is Daniel Craig, showing crack comic timing as control-freak explosives expert Joe Bang. He has to be sprung from prison to participate in the heist, in a subplot that involves an extended, surprisingly effective "Game of Thrones" joke.
Logan Lucky is a shaggy-dog story, no doubt about it, with detours that flesh out its earthy setting more than they serve its plot. We watch Jimmy flirt with the driver of a medical van (a subtle reminder that he lacks health insurance); we cheer as an arrogant energy-drink magnate (Seth MacFarlane) gets his comeuppance.
Reaching for a kind of apolitical, pro-underdog populism, Soderbergh steers clear of big statements. All the characters are the brunt of good-natured ribbing, and inventive camerawork and sight gags keep things clicking along. By the time Hilary Swank shows up as a dogged FBI agent, though, the movie has already reached an emotional climax and feels like it should be over.
Maybe Logan Lucky would have done better as the pilot for a prestige TV series. Its characters aren't complex, but they grow on you, and you don't have to enjoy NASCAR to appreciate its deep dive into the self-contained world of the speedway.
Soderbergh kicked off his efforts to revive the tradition of crowd-pleasing progressive comedy with the far more successful Magic Mike. Was Logan Lucky too inauthentic to appeal to Soderbergh's chosen target audience, or was the director's determination to flout Hollywood marketing wisdom to blame? Perhaps the movie was simply, like the Logan family, in need of a little luck.