In ‘Logan Lucky,’ Steven Soderbergh’s Bold Financial Venture Seems Creatively Cautious

To hear the trades tell it, Steven Soderbergh had a lot riding on Logan Lucky, for which he eschewed the traditional studio distribution model and went it alone (sort of), at least attempting to take his film directly to theaters. The goal? Not being beholden to anyone else’s money, marketing strategy, or creative vision. To have “no intermediary” and “complete transparency,” as he told GQ earlier this year. He says the actors all worked for scale and “will literally be able to go online with a password and look at this account as the money is delivered from the theaters.”

Soderbergh paid for the film by selling the foreign rights for $29 million, and the streaming rights to Amazon for $20 million. When he realized he couldn’t quite go straight to theaters, he partnered with former WB exec Dan Fellman and and the indie Bleecker Street for marketing and distribution. He’s gambling that they can market it for much less than major studios typically spend, and in so doing give the artists a much more direct stake in the bottom line. “The question is: Can we put a movie out in 3,000 theaters, and spend half of what a studio would spend to do it, and succeed?” he told GQ in the same interview.

It’s a strategy that Indiewire says “could prove to be a game-changer and set a new standard” for film distribution. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but Logan Lucky earned just $8.1 million domestically this weekend from 3,301 theaters, the second worst nationwide opening of Soderbergh’s career behind Solaris, and worst adjusting for inflation. Of course, it still has time, and whether it’s a failed experiment or a learning experience remains to be seen.

Trying to carve a fresh path is fitting for a filmmaker who’s been defined by his willingness to take creative risks. That includes a few that didn’t really pay off (Haywire), but overall only adds to his esteem. It’s like skiing; if you never fall down you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.

Which of course still leaves the question: is the movie any good?

It’s… okay. Despite pioneering a new distribution model (or maybe because of it?), Logan Lucky is the first Soderbergh movie since the Oceans trilogy that feels a little stale, his first in years where he seems constrained by expectations. As always, lesser Soderbergh is still better than most filmmakers’ best, but for a guy who’s long excelled at finding the fun in dramas (Out of Sight and Magic Mike come to mind), Logan Lucky crystallizes the sense that straight comedy might not be his thing. At least, not unless you share his love for all things winking.

On paper, it’s a dream movie. Channing Tatum and Adam Driver play North Carolina brothers, who team up with their sister, played by Riley Keough, and their friend, a crew-cut jailbird played by Daniel Craig, for a big score. It’s a slick, snappy heist plot full of all sorts of bells, whistles, and a literally pneumatic Macguffin, but the snap often gives way to shtick, and a lot of it is suffused with the same unfortunate sensibility that gave us Julia Roberts playing a character who looks like the actress Julia Roberts in Oceans 12.

Get it? That actress you know is playing a character who looks like that actress you know. In giving us Magic Mike, the film that forever turned me around on Channing Tatum, and The Knick, one of my favorite shows of all time, Steven Soderbergh had made me all but forget that he’d committed the nearly unforgivable sin of designing a plot point around the idea of a character looking like the actress playing her. Logan Lucky made me remember again.

C-Tates remains blameless, as he’s not only perfectly cast as the ex-jock, laid-off forklift driving Southern dad with a bum knee and a heart of gold, Jimmy Logan, but he and Riley Keough are the only actors who seem to be taking this damned thing seriously. (Daniel Craig is game too, but his character feels like an extended wink.)

The usually great Adam Driver plays Clyde Logan with a hammy, glugging Gomer Pyle accent that he at least keeps consistent enough to eventually get used to. Everyone else feels like they’re nudging your ribs every time they open their mouths, and that’s excluding Seth MacFarlane’s British energy drink magnate (every bit as obnoxious as that sounds), who’s more like a poke to the eyes.

Obviously, this seems to be more a matter of creative choice than mistake. As Soderbergh told our own Mike Ryan when defending the aforementioned Julia Roberts gag, “I really feel like in a comedy, all bets are off.”

Except for my money, one bet that’s almost never off is that a movie is funnier when the characters themselves don’t act like they’re in on the joke. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Tatum and Keough (aside from MacFarlane) are Jack Quaid (Dennis Quaid’s son) and Brian Gleeson (Brendan Gleeson’s son), in scene-ruining performances as Daniel Craig’s redneck brothers. The two seem pretty clearly a callback to Casey Affleck and Scott Caan’s Mormon brothers from Oceans 11 (celebrity relatives playing fly-over state exotics), only unlike Affleck and Caan, the dialogue is hokey (“I know all about the Twitters”) and the accents are borderline offensive, mainly because they’re so far from the real thing, which would’ve been much funnier.

David Denman (formerly Pam’s ex-boyfriend on The Office) is much more successful, playing Channing Tatum’s ex-wife’s new husband, a car salesman trying to wrangle a pair of rambunctious sons who interrupt their roughhousing to inform Tatum that Rihanna’s “Umbrella” is actually about her vagina.

That joke works and, to be fair, many, of Logan Lucky‘s jokes work. There’s also an undeniable kineticism to the way Soderbergh builds and cuts between scenes, and plenty of solid, foot-tappy musical choices. But cutesy banter is fine, and heists are great, but cutesy banter during heists ruins both. That kind of comedy exists on a plane of realism fundamentally different than the one in which I can be invested in the stakes of a heist. Hey, remember that time in high school when– NO, DAVE, JUST DEFUSE THE F*CKING BOMB.

I don’t know if it’s paradoxical or just economically prudent that Soderbergh would try to replicate his biggest franchise at this crucial moment of attempting to build a new distribution model (in which I heartily hope he succeeds). But artistically, it’s slightly less than inspiring. And when a newscaster in the movie calls the heist “Oceans 7-11,” it’s almost like she’s made the entire preceding movie irrelevant. A description that pat should feel wrong, the story too unique to itself to be reduced to a cutesy two or three-word pun. Instead it fits all too perfectly, just that and not much more.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.