adam driver, benjamin button, Channing Tatum, daniel craig, dazed and confused, dwight yoakam, erin brockovich, everybody wants some!!, katie holmes, magic mike, ocean's 11, ocean's 12, ocean's 13, richard linklater, riley keough, seth macfarlane, Steven Soderbergh, tex avery, the girlfriend experience
Hangout movies, almost by definition, rarely rely upon any crucial event or tense development. There are dramatic stakes, otherwise they would be a complete bore, but the desires our characters have and the conflicts they enter into tend to be on the lesser end of the severity spectrum. While this may rob them of the narrative gravitas we expect from our “great movies”, if done successfully it puts them in that perpetual-smile sweet spot of viewing. I think of Richard Linklater’s filmography – particularly Dazed and Confused and its more recent thematic follow-up, Everybody Wants Some!! – where the goals and needs of its characters are treated with respect and sincerity, but never amount to much more than getting drunk, hooking up and general anxiety about the future.
Steven Soderbergh has, with his Ocean’s movies, essentially franchised the hangout movie. And while the stakes of those are unequivocally higher than Linklater’s adolescent-ennui masterpieces, i.e. bank robberies and the legal infractions they entail, there’s still never really any threat of actual peril for our heroes. It’s in this same consequence-free bubble that Logan Lucky, Soderbergh’s return to feature filmmaking, finds itself.
The premise is that the Logan clan, here represented by brothers Channing Tatum and Adam Driver, as well as sister Riley Keough, is a cursed one. In a brief recap akin to the lightning bolt survivor asides from Benjamin Button, we learn in amusing fashion about the various misfortunes that have befallen various Logans over the years. Of relevance to our story is that each brother has already (hopefully) encountered their stroke of misfortune; a football injury for Tatum, an IED claiming a lower arm of Driver. The former results in an insurance-related firing from a construction outfit, while the latter presumably keeps Driver from greater accomplishments, now simply tending bar in a deliberate pace in their West Virginia hometown.
Beyond his limp courtesy of that blown-out knee, Tatum’s contending with his ex-wife’s (Katie Holmes) threats to relocate their daughter, along with her new family, to North Carolina. Lacking the resources to retain counsel that could stymie this – and because we need a movie – he devises a scheme to rob his old construction job’s locale, the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
It’s tempting to say this is when the movie gets going, but it kind of never does. That’s genuinely not an insult – the whole thing hums along at a wavelength that, while it never peaks at any delirious highs, it also never flags. The band that must be brought together – including Daniel Craig in bleached-blond and totally welcome full-on ham mode – is predictably unorthodox and blessed with that ineffable southern ability to combine matter-of-fact observations and existential platitudes in seven words or fewer. The chronic ne’er-do-wells (Craig and his morally conflicted recidivist brothers) get a dose of assistance from a local prison. Craig’s character, the Tex Avery- named Joe Bang, an explosives expert the Logan brothers require for the crux of their plan, must be spirited out of and then back into being incarcerated (which he lovingly reminds us is a five-syllable word). This results in a parallel story not dissimilar to the Mexican union saga found in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 13. A lot happens, involving willful incarceration, an inmate revolt, and a conveniently incompetent and image-conscious warden (Dwight Yoakam). And I haven’t even mentioned Seth McFarlane as a needlessly British racing sponsor and purveyor of some kind of wretched energy drink.
And this is more or less what Logan Lucky is – the gears are constantly turning. Not particularly fast, not especially intricately – but steady and free of snags. To aggregate the goofy characters of plot developments also does a disservice to the movie’s heart. A function of the low stakes – a hangout movie, remember – but also a seeming endorsement of its lunkheads’ plan, this movie tracks the interest Soderbergh has displayed in protagonists with tight economic situations, like the title character of Erin Brockovich or the uniquely employed stars of Magic Mike and The Girlfriend Experience. There are a handful of moments where dialogue lingers over footage from a different scene, a driver on an open road listening to their conscience, perhaps. One thing the effect does is to remind us that Soderbergh is a pro, and these kinds of minor impressionistic touches are organic for someone of his abilities. The less analytical effect is simple humanization, an injection of integrity and self-examination a less interested, more slapdash heist movie would forego, if it ever even was considered. To the extent that we believe in these characters, they are certainly people, and as long as the goal of a blue-collar protagonist is to provide enough to see his daughter and live a relatively complaint-free, benign existence, there will be audiences to sympathize. Here, it’s just a bonus that we learn about the combustive possibilities of bleach pens and gummy bears.