When, in 2013, Steven Soderbergh swore off making movies, no one really believed he was done. As the prolific, genre-surfing director pointed out at the time and as has become ever more true in the years since, the boom in prestige TV and the proliferation of streaming options have made the distinction between big- and small-screen releases blurrier than ever. Even at the time, Soderbergh’s very public act of renunciation was more symbolic than categorical. His stepping away from filmmaking was a protest against—and also, no doubt, a personal break from—the way films are produced, distributed, and promoted in the 21st-century marketplace. It’s a model Soderbergh has attempted to subvert with the unusual approach he’s taking to the distribution and marketing for Logan Lucky, his first theatrical feature since the 2013 psychological thriller Side Effects.
In his four years of exile from the “movies” proper, Soderbergh directed a feature-length film for HBO and a 20-episode series for Cinemax. He also executive-produced another series based on his own 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience. His restless imagination and interest in the art of editing—he edits and shoots his own films under pseudonyms constructed from the names of his parents—has also given rise to several idiosyncratic home editing projects. He assembled a preliminary recut of Spike Jonze’s Her at the director’s request and has posted to his personal website shortened “alternate cuts” of classic films such as Heaven’s Gate and 2001: A Space Odyssey (some of which were removed later at the request of the companies that owned them).
Given all that, Logan Lucky, a heist comedy made from a screenplay credited to one Rebecca Blunt, seems like a curiously low-stakes way for Soderbergh to re-enter the theatrical filmmaking space. (Blunt’s own true identity has been disputed, with the Playlist reporting that Rebecca Blunt is a pseudonym for Soderbergh’s wife Jules Asner. Meanwhile, Soderbergh has insisted only that “She is a woman, and she wrote [the movie] entirely by herself.”) Logan Lucky doesn’t represent a huge break from genres the director has worked in before: Like the Ocean’s trilogy, it tells the story of a complicated robbery scheme cooked up by a group of comic misfits, and like many of his best-known films (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Out of Sight, Magic Mike), it’s set in the American South, where Soderbergh grew up. (He was born in Atlanta and subsequently lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.) Logan Lucky is an old-fashioned, comfortable, knockabout movie with a touch of Magic Mike’s loopy male camaraderie and a glint of the Ocean’s movies’ stylish cleverness. But it doesn’t have enough of those qualities—or bring enough that’s new to the table—to qualify as one of Soderbergh’s best.
Like Magic Mike, Logan Lucky draws heavily on the warmth and charm of its star, Channing Tatum, who plays Jimmy Logan, a heavy-equipment operator in a West Virginia coal mine who’s laid off for a pre-existing condition that makes him a liability risk. Jimmy walks with a slight limp from an injury sustained when he was a high-school football star, and this misfortune contributes to the long-standing local legend—perpetuated as much by Jimmy’s family as by their neighbors—that the Logans are unlucky.
Jimmy’s younger brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), a bartender who wears a prosthetic arm after losing a limb in Iraq, believes deeply in the Logan curse; he’ll fulminate about it at gloomy length to whomever will listen. Their sister, Mellie (Riley Keough), a hairdresser with a lighter spirit than her two phlegmatic brothers, takes the curse theory in stride. But when Jimmy, desperate for money, comes up with a complex scheme to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a Memorial Day NASCAR race, all three of the siblings sign on in a bid to reverse their ancestral ill fortune.
Though Jimmy may not be the sharpest tool in the kit, his experience working construction on the racetrack’s infrastructure gives him some authority on the subject of how to rob the place, at least by the standards of the sub-ragtag band he and Clyde soon assemble. These guys aspire to be ragtag: brothers Sam and Fish (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid) boast that their computer expertise extends to “knowing all the Twitters,” while demolitions expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, having evident fun for the first time in ages) presents the obstacle of being, as he points out during his prison visit with the Logans, “In-car-ce-rat-ed.”* If they can conceive of a scheme to break Bang out of jail for just one day, they can move on to planning the perfect heist, or the least imperfect one they can manage with explosives made of bleach pens and Gummi Bears.
Though Logan Lucky’s funny and committed cast (also including Dwight Yoakam, an underused Katherine Waterston, and a barely there Hilary Swank) provides a steady supply of good-sized laughs, this film struck me as underachieving on several fronts. The central relationship between the two loyal brothers never stopped feeling like a plot device, perhaps because of Tatum’s and Driver’s very different acting styles: one genial, low-key, and naturalistic, the other seeming to operate in a remote but fascinating headspace all its own. That quality of slightly alien set-apart-ness has suited Driver well in many roles, but his Clyde sometimes plays in a too-comic register, as if the actor were enjoying his character’s hick accent and predictions of familial doom from a satiric distance. In general, Soderbergh lays on the atmospheric red-state cornpone a little thick: Jimmy’s ex-wife (Katie Holmes) is given the ineluctably country name Bobbie Jo, and their daughter (Farrah Mackenzie) competes in child beauty pageants. A TV report about the heist dubs the crime “Ocean’s 7-11”—a joke whose self-referential insularity is less grating than its air of condescension toward the film’s characters. A final montage that replays the heist from a different, twist-revealing perspective either didn’t make airtight plot sense or went by too fast for me to follow, but this isn’t the kind of movie you watch for its intricate story construction anyway—it’s a relaxed, shambling good time, both for the audience and the cast.
Though Soderbergh’s skewering of Southern folkways occasionally slips toward the territory of Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, he ultimately seems to have great affection for his dimwitted-like-a-fox hillbilly heroes, and if you go in expecting no more than a pleasant summer romp, you will likely feel the same. Logan Lucky may not be the most groundbreaking film for Soderbergh to have chosen to make for his grand, if unsurprising, return to the big screen. But it’s a pleasure to have him back, and I don’t doubt the ideas gathered on his multiplatform sabbatical will find their way into whatever this curious chameleon of a director does next.
*Correction, Aug. 18, 2017: This article originally misidentified the other Bang brothers as Cal and Earl (Jim O’Heir and Charles Halford). Also, it misattributed the photo credit. The photo is by Fingerprint Releasing and Bleecker Street, not Amazon Studios.