Wasn’t it just yesterday that Steven Soderbergh was announcing his retirement from filmmaking? Those of us who didn’t buy it are now vindicated with the return of American cinema’s most dependably fluent yeoman, a director whose rejection of auteurial flourishes has itself become a signature: a style of no-style. “Logan Lucky” turns out to be an apt return for Soderbergh, conveying his gift for the fleet directness of almost offhand wit, but also betraying the glib superficiality of his least memorable work.
As “Logan Lucky” opens, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is fixing a car with the help of his adorable young daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie). He’s delivering a disquisition on John Denver and how he came to hear the song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” – a soliloquy, like so many details throughout the movie, that springs not from spontaneity but from the need to pay off later. When Jimmy, who lives in West Virginia, loses his job working construction at a NASCAR stadium in Charlotte, then learns his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) is considering a move out of state, he embarks on a plan that involves both revenge and monetary reward, a caper that will give him just enough to stay, if not above water, at least safe from circling the drain.
The question is whether Jimmy’s scheme will run afoul of the famous Logan family curse, laid out in a drawling expository speech by his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a bartender and military veteran who lost a lower arm while serving overseas. As Jimmy plans what he’s certain will be a surefire heist, he assembles a ragtag group of friends, relatives and local oddballs including: Clyde and Jimmy’s hairdresser sister – and notorious leadfoot – Mellie (Riley Keough); an incarcerated thief named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig); and Bang’s own dubious siblings, Sam and Fish (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid), who before signing on must be assured that the crime they are about to commit adheres to their own strict moral code.
What ensues is a playful, down-home take on “Ocean’s Eleven” that relies less on sleek gadgetry and sophisticated repartee than on cramped ductwork, pneumatic tubes and dim-witted, aw-shucks patois. Written by Rebecca Blunt – an unfamiliar name that many assume is an aka for Soderbergh, who’s known to work under pseudonyms – “Logan Lucky” indulges a Coenesque absurdist streak, often trailing into silly side-winding digressions and narrative devices that go nowhere fast. One subplot involving a vain race car driver, played by Seth McFarlane affecting an atrocious British accent, could easily have been trimmed or jettisoned entirely to make the film move more smoothly. Another, involving a kiddie beauty pageant, feels equally gratuitous, not just as a ticktock structural device but also as an obvious ploy to pay off on those sentimental seeds so carefully sown in the very first scene.
Those schematics aside, the pleasures of watching “Logan Lucky” exist in direct proportion to the hilarity one finds in an ensemble of actors affecting Southern accents to play a motley assortment of yokels, ne’er-do-wells and salts of the earth. Set almost entirely within the “white working class” whom Hollywood is constantly accused of ignoring, “Logan Lucky” depicts the American South as a place in which the only contact its Caucasian protagonists have with black people is in prison, and in which colorfully eccentric hicks say things like, “I looked it up on the Google” and claim to know “all the Twitters.” Alternately patronizing and pandering, “Logan Lucky” walks an uneasy line between condescension and concern-trolling.
When a physician played by Katherine Waterston shows up at a convenient juncture to underscore West Virginia’s shaky access to employment and health care, the plot point feels sincere, but also like lip service in a story that a character self-consciously calls “Ocean’s 7-Eleven.” As such, “Logan Lucky” plays like a down-market homage to brotherly devotion and harebrained ambition that simultaneously evokes grim present-day realities and breezily ignores them. As lighthearted, late-summer escapism goes, “Logan Lucky” is an amusing, if convoluted and undisciplined bagatelle. As a hotly anticipated comeback, it feels like a slightly dippy, ultimately disposable warm-up of a director whose brains, chops and judicious taste we need more than ever.