From his flop The Underneath to the triumph of Out of Sight and the box office success of Ocean’s 11 and even The Informant!, Steven Soderbergh has relished taking heists apart and reassembling the pieces. He’s even better at filming the heist itself as if it and the players formed part of a ball of twine that he unwinds inch by inch, making us wonder if he can roll it back up. Logan Lucky is his most audacious example of this approach. It barely works — the audience has to believe many of these barely articulate residents of Boone County, West Virginia have the brains for stealing thousands of dollars in cash from the Coca Cola 600 race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. What makes it (barely) watchable is, as usual with Soderbergh, a game cast and the suspense generated by watching one of contemporary film’s most ruthless formalists toy with expectations.
That stolid hunk of manflesh called Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, whose family is a joke among locals for their talent for finding bad luck. “You Logans must be as simpleminded as people say,” a spectator observes. In classic fashion, Soderbergh sets up the elements. Fired from his job as a coal mine excavator, about to have his cell phone shut off for non-payment (he hates the damn thing anyway), Jimmy is at wit’s end. Worse, his ex wife (Katie Holmes, playing the least convincing Southerner since Anne Hathaway’s Texas wife drawled through Brokeback Mountain) has married a wealthy car dealer who wears Ford caps and has eyes on his hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough), the latter unimpressed by his inability to drive stick. But Jimmy’s daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), rehearsing Rihanna’s “Umbrella” to perform at a beauty pageant, still believes in him. Meanwhile his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) may have lost an arm in Iraq but he’s a wizard tending bar at the rather archly named Duck Tape; if I didn’t gag at the thought of a vodka martini, I’d cheer his precision and grace.
Now, Driver is as West Virginian as George Clooney was Mississippian in O Brother Where Art Thou?, and I didn’t believe for a minute they were related. Don’t let that stop you. To rip off the race, the brothers hook up with convict Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and Joe’s half wit brothers (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson), given to adding an “s” to Twitter and entangling sentences in molasses. Getting Joe doesn’t satisfy Jimmy’s demand that they recruit “one of them Facebook boys” — you know, a computer expert. Describing the heist of this Nascar race would consume what remains of my word count; it involves a birthday cake, hand-painted live cockroaches, and an explosive device (don’t call it a bomb, Joe insists) made of bleach pens, fake salt, a plastic bag and gummy bears. After blowing the power to the speedway’s credit card readers, the crooks reverse the flow of the the in-house vacuum tubes to suck out the sudden cash intake. But to get to this point in the film Joe and Clyde have to get out of jail for a few hours — and return; Clyde got himself in on purpose on a ninety-day term by smashing his car through a store window.
Erin Brockovich demonstrated how well Soderbergh understands the aspirations of the working poor: how their dreams look vulgar to the rest of us because we haven’t had to long for them as insatiably as Julia Roberts’ eponymous heroine. In Logan Lucky, he comes up short. Craig comes off best: as Joe Bang, his eyes constantly roam the room, in search of stimulation and danger. During the heist he wastes no time on nonsense because he wants to spend his cut on nonsense when it’s over. Tatum, a performer with immediate audience rapport who can play and — difficult trick — step back from playing lunkheads with finesse, is fine. The rest of the actors aren’t playing characters so much as Saturday Night Live sketches of rubes. Dwight Yoakam as the oafish warden and Hillary Swank as an FBI investigator are wasted. When Seth MacFarlane wanders in as a British racer with a serious chip on his shoulder, Soderbergh telegraphs his intentions within seconds; we know what MacFarlane’s here for and what he’ll end up doing within seconds. Although Soderbergh is not exactly making fun of this milieu, the line between empathy and malice often disappears. How convenient that the crooks are sucking the money from the hands of fellow hairdressers, coal miners, and bartenders who regard Nascar as their Superbowl.
Too occupied with getting the jigsaw pieces to fit, Soderbergh blocks goon show episodes in Logan Lucky whose punch lines need an extra polish. Rebecca Blunt’s script has a few bits of lived-in, rumpled dialogue, often on the fringes: a nurse sassing Joe when he fakes an illness at the jail infirmary; one of Mellie’s beauty parlor clients tut-tutting the infamous Logan bad luck. But the movie doesn’t have the lived-in, rumpled virtues of Tampa in Magic Mike or that sand-blasted California town in Erin Brockovich; Soderbergh gives us postcards you can find in Cracker Barrell. there’s no reason why Lucky Logan has to be almost two hours long and resort to a Robin Hood-indebted last act. In the Age of Trump, class consciousness has a poisonous bite. The generosity with which Jimmy treats friends and foes alike feels like a rebuke to liberal caricatures about so-called flyover country. But Blunt and Soderbergh have still presented warmhearted rubes, simple because they’re simple. What’s left is curt editing and the result of thousands spent on language coaches — a compendium of flash.