Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to the heist movie. With the remake of Ocean’s Eleven, he created a slick crime caper that reflected the ethos of the early 21st century. Before the current political rancor and the great recession, we lived in a world that felt like the good times would never end. Our home prices would keep rising. Our economy would keep growing. The Dow Jones Industrial Average would keep setting records. In Ocean’s Eleven, the criminals are smooth operators stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from millionaires and glitzy casinos. Everything is clean. Everything is crisp. Everything twinkles like a fine diamond. Nothing feels weighty or consequential. The films serve as a fantasy for a society that believes that it’s growing wealthier all the time.
In Logan Lucky, Soderbergh returns to the world of elaborately planned heists. Only this time, he’s taken the fundamentals of the comic, team heist film he perfected in the Ocean’s movies and swaps out all the details. The suave career criminals are replaced with blue collar folks that are just trying to get by. Las Vegas and the gleaming capitals of Europe are replaced with West Virginia. Casinos are replaced with a NASCAR speedway. The riches accrued from gambling are replaced with the riches accrued from selling hotdogs and beer. The film centers around the preternaturally unlucky Logan family. When Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) loses his job as a construction worker due to bureaucratic indifference, he teams up with his one-armed bar tender brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and his hair dresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough) to rob the local NASCAR speedway. They gather a team of misfits including Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), a jailed explosive expert, and his two brothers and get to work. Through this change in setting, it’s clear that Soderbergh is trying to create a heist movie that’s a reflection of modern America rather than a paean to a lost past of excess. This is a fantasy for an America that’s lost its confidence rather than the America that saw riches stretching to the horizon.
At its core, though, Lucky Logan is still a heist movie that’s built upon the bones of Ocean’s Eleven. It’s slick, it’s entertaining, it’s clever, and it’s frivolous. You might puzzle for a moment or two about how they pulled off the heist as you walk out to your car, but the Logan family and their troubles will evaporate from your consciousness before you get home. It’s the kind of entertainment that you want after a hard week at work. At that level, the film works for the most part. Sure, there are some bizarre loose ends. I still can’t figure out why the film devotes any time to Seth MacFarlane’s British billionaire NASCAR owner Max Chilblain or his NASCAR driver Dayton White (Sebastian Stan). Their subplot, as far as I can tell, has nothing significant to do with the rest of the movie. The film also has an odd structure which has its action in the middle followed by an extended denouement that feels clumsy and aimless at times. Still, despite these problems, the film’s a good time.
Unfortunately, while this formula is tried and true, it’s also the fundamental flaw of the film. It turns out that the kind of light weight fun that made the Ocean’s movies successful relies upon the relatively carefree spirit of their settings. They’re fun precisely because everything in them is so inconsequential. Who cares if a hundred million dollars goes missing from a casino? As long as we can see George Clooney looking suave in his thousand-dollar suit and concocting a Rube Goldberg machine for moving money out of a bank vault we’re all having fun. Transplant that attitude to a group of down-trodden folks in middle America and you have an awkward mismatch. There’s something uncomfortable about watching a movie where much of the humor involves laughing at people with difficult lives. In Ocean’s Eleven, I could laugh at the quirks of the various characters and feel okay about it. There was a sense that these people chose to live this life. Watching Logan Lucky, I worried that I may be laughing at West Virginians the way I might laugh at a bear riding a tricycle. Is this movie venerating these people or making fun of them? It’s one thing to assemble a motley crew of weird career criminals and laugh at their quirks. It’s another to assemble a bunch of down on their luck working people and laugh at their idiocy. Unfortunately, that’s what this movie does. While many of the characters ultimately turn out to be highly competent, much of the humor of the film is derived from playing on stereotypes of West Virginians. Nowhere is this more evident than with Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid) Bang, the brothers of demolitions expert Joe Bang. Practically every scene they’re in invites the audience to laugh at the worst stereotypes of the West Virginian working class. You just can’t make a movie that’s thematically centered around the troubles of rural America while making fun of the inhabitants of rural America.
I stopped drinking Coke regularly years ago. Every time I drink one now, I enjoy the taste, but the sugar leaves a gross aftertaste that I desperately need to wash away with a glass of water. That’s how I felt about Lucky Logan as well. I was having fun as I watched the movie. Adam Driver’s weird affectation was charming. The Bangs, with their hillbilly accents and mores elicited a chuckle or two. The interaction between Jimmy Logan and his daughter (Farrah MacKenzie) warmed the cockles of my heart. I felt a twinge of discomfort here and there as I laughed at those crazy hillbillies. It was only upon leaving the theater that I noticed a twinge of guilt coloring my opinion of the film. I knew I had been laughing at people for not being as fortunate as me. I washed away my guilt with a Belgian-Style Beer with notes of Banana and Clove.