He’s in, he’s out, he’s in again! Not so long ago, Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from making movies, but he’s the director least likely to ever put down a camera for long. It’s through his camera that he makes sense of the world, often in the conviction (most obvious in his debut, sex, lies, and videotape, but dramatized in other films) that our mediated reality dehumanizes us. To cap it off, he feels the need to wield the camera himself (usually under the name “Peter Andrews”) in evident distrust of anyone else’s mechanical eye. (To cap off the cap, he needs to edit what he shoots.) It’s easy to see how such a controlling vantage could leave him exhausted. But it’s easier to see how disoriented he’d be without recourse to it.
On the basis of his new hick caper comedy Logan Lucky, I’d guess what he missed most is playing the role of trickster. The whole movie is a trick, reversing our expectations at nearly every turn and casting actors in roles that they were not exactly born to play, but do so with relish. Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Riley Keough are the Logan siblings of West Virginia, and the joke of the title is that everything they do goes wrong. Let go from his latest job — fixing sinkholes under North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway —Tatum’s Jimmy decides to use the existing mineshaft to rob the place, which is as big and complicated as some cities. He puts together a team because that’s what one does in heist movies. It’s more than half the fun.
The fun of Soderbergh’s Ocean films (particularly the third) was in their glamorous stars and clockwork plotting, but the strategy here is to let the stars act like drawling stumblebums and make that clock move at various, unpredictable speeds. The movie has the amiable spirit of the Italian comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street and a touch of the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona and O, Brother Where Art Thou? It’s more shambling and campier than a Coen Brothers movie, though. Most of the actors speak very slowly while the camera loiters on them, letting them set their own pace, and the longer it takes for them to come out with their lines, the funnier.
As Clyde Logan, who manages to tend bar with an artificial arm (he lost the first in Iraq — more bad luck), Driver is slow even by his own tortured standards, but you’re always caught off guard by the character’s slyness — by what Clyde notices when you think he’s not listening. He has a good counterweight in Tatum, whose beefiness sometimes distracts you from the quickness of his instincts. He’s a smart, centered leading man. (Can he play roles that traumatically decenter him? We’ll see.) Keough is punchy, magnetic, and should have had more screen time. But this is mainly a guy movie. A father movie, really, since Jimmy’s mission is to earn enough to be able to live closer to his little daughter. (Katie Holmes plays the ex-wife; Katherine Waterston the lovely, gentle potential love interest.) The daughter is in a talent show that Jimmy can’t miss. Take him home, country roads — and fast.
The showstopper turn is by Daniel Craig, whose character — a wizardly safe blower called Joe Bang — has no correlative in any movie or, for that matter, life. He’s sui generis. He’s sui genius. Trapped by 007, the most lucrative straitjacket imaginable, Craig obviously hungers to deglamorize himself, and he puts every drop of weirdness he can muster into Joe Bang. (I like writing Joe Bang. It’s a great name. Joe Bang.) Musclebound, loping, his hair bleached so that he looks near-albino, Joe Bang speaks prissily, as if he’s talking to very dumb people, in this case people who want to use his talents even though he is, for a few months at least, incarcerated. (“Ah am in-car-cer-ated.”) Joe Bang’s tools for blowing safes are unique: “Gummi bears, fake salt, and bleach pens. Add heat to that, and it is a very dangerous combination of chemicals. It’s on YouTube.” Craig’s Joe Bang is a fruitcake for the ages.
I wish I could leave it there, but the second part of the heist (after a hilarious start) becomes extremely confusing, and I never understood the ultimate trick, as revealed in the last 15 minutes. Perhaps the screenwriter, Rebecca Blunt, could explain it, if she exists, which is not a given. Soderbergh has suggested that questioning her existence is sexist — a brilliant rhetorical device. So I’d better leave it there. Another problem with Logan Lucky’s last section is the arrival of Hilary Swank as a detective on the hunt for the Speedway thieves. Swank seems to think that doing a raspy imitation of Clint Eastwood — her co-star and director in Million Dollar Baby — is a scream all by itself. The monotony of her turn points out what’s delightful about the rest of the movie — that you can never guess what will pop out of anyone’s mouth. I’m guessing that Soderbergh was as surprised as everyone else by these nutbirds. Even this control freak must once in a while long to let go.