It’s really easy to make a movie that five people understand,” director Steven Soderbergh recently told the New York Times. “It’s really hard to make something that a lot of people understand, and yet is not obvious, still has subtlety and ambiguity, and leaves you with something to do as a viewer.” Soderbergh can speak with authority on the subject: over nearly three decades, his films have ranged from eclectic indie projects (Schizopolis, Full Frontal, Bubble) to box office hits (Ocean’s Eleven, Magic Mike). For years he claimed to be retiring from the movie business, but then another feature would come out. Now, having made good on his promise for four years, he returns to cinemas this weekend with Logan Lucky, a heist comedy about a crew of goofballs trying to rip off North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway during the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600.
The movie is smart and funny, though ultimately it’s less noteworthy as an entertainment than as a marketing concept. As Soderbergh has explained, Logan Lucky is something of a business experiment to see if one can launch an independent production into the commercial mainstream without relying on a big studio to publicize and distribute it. “There have been advancements in technology that make it a lot easier to get a movie out in 3,000 screens than it was even two years ago,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “The economic model is pretty simple. You sell the foreign to cover the cost of the [film] negative. We sell the non-theatrical rights to cover the cost of the [prints and advertising], and that’s it.” Produced by his Fingerprint Films, Logan Lucky features a star cast (Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Katie Holmes, Seth MacFarlane, Hilary Swank) working for scale and a percentage of the profits; handled by the upstart distributor Bleecker Street, the movie opens this weekend on some 2,500 screens, concentrated in the south and southwest, with the same imperative faced by big-studio releases to find an audience instantly or get knocked out by the next shiny object.
To that end, Soderbergh serves up a red-state remake of Ocean’s Eleven, set in the heart of Trump country but just hip enough to pass muster with city folk. Former NFL hopeful Jimmy Logan (Tatum) loses his job digging tunnels under the speedway after a supervisor catches him limping on a security camera and discovers that he failed to report a leg injury on his insurance form. Back in his native Boone County, West Virginia, his brackish ex-wife, Bobbie Jo (Holmes), who has full custody of their two young children, announces that she and her second husband are moving the family to Virginia. Jimmy, needing money for an attorney, enlists his younger brother, Clyde (Driver), who lost his left hand while fighting in Iraq, in a scheme to rip off the speedway, whose cash revenues all flow to an underground safe through an old-fashioned pneumatic-tube transport system. The key to their plan is bleach-blond explosives expert Joe Bang (Craig), currently doing time, so the brothers conspire to free him from prison on the day of the robbery and get him back again before anyone notices.
Jimmy and Clyde are shitkickers at heart—”Ocean’s 7-Eleven,” one character jokes—but first-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt (said to be Jules Asner, the director’s wife and a West Virginia native) invests them with enough irony and idiosyncrasy to bring them alive onscreen. In the opening scene, Jimmy reveals himself as a pop-culture junkie when he recounts to his daughter, Sadie, the genesis of John Denver’s 1971 hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Sadie, for her part, is preparing to compete in a child beauty pageant, performing Rihanna’s sexually loaded song “Diamonds” in the talent competition. (“She’s talking about her vagina,” Jimmy’s little boy, Levi, explains to him. “It’s code.”) Clyde, tending bar at the local roadhouse with his artificial hand, seems to have even fewer options than Jimmy does, but he’s not the sort to pity himself. Needled about his disability by the snotty, red-vinyl-clad NASCAR driver Max Chilblain (MacFarlane), Clyde pulls off the hand, sets it on the bar, and stonily mixes Chilblain a perfect cocktail with his good hand.
These genuine character moments dominate the movie and serve to paper over an absurdly far-fetched plot. In many heist films (not least Soderbergh’s own Ocean’s Eleven romps), the conspirators lay out their foolproof plan in advance, so the viewer will edge forward in his seat later when something goes wrong. Blunt can hardly afford this kind of scene, however, because if you ticked off all the unlikely stratagems required to execute the NASCAR heist, not even these yahoos would be dumb enough to move forward. Before the robbery can even commence, Clyde must run his truck into a convenience store and get himself sentenced to prison so he can help spring Joe Bang. The very first step of the heist is an exercise in wishful thinking and split-second timing: when a cake, secretly containing contraband, is delivered anonymously to the racetrack accounting staff, they all gather inside the vault to eat it, but then a fender bender out in the parking lot, orchestrated by the Logans, draws everyone out of the building at the exact moment when the time lock will seal the vault with the cake inside.
A son of the south now living in New York City, Soderbergh knows both sides of the red-blue divide, and Logan Lucky represents one hell of a balancing act. The movie’s advertising campaign features an overbearing stars-and-bars motif, and various NASCAR drivers turn up in cameo roles. Yet Boone County is relatively liberal for West Virginia—it went for every Democratic presidential candidate from Jimmy Carter in 1976 to Barack Obama in 2008—so the Logans can be trusted not to rant about the deep state or pledge their lives in defense of the Second Amendment or burst into chants of “Lock her up!” You might say that Soderbergh sees the nation whole, and his vision of a laidback, clued-in Dixie offers a hopeful vision. Or you might say that he wants to make a shitload of money on this project. I suspect it’s the latter, but I hope it’s the former, if only because Soderbergh knows how to craft a movie that a lot of people will understand. v