‘Logan Lucky” is Steven Soderbergh’s return to movie directing after he swore he was giving it up four years ago, and it’s a reminder of how eerily good he is at putting a story on film. A craftsman with the impulses of a prankster, Soderbergh makes it look almost too easy, and maybe it is.
The new movie, a heist comedy, has been described in some quarters as “Ocean’s 11” for the NASCAR crowd, and that’s not wrong. It also feels like the director is trying to reverse-engineer one of the Coen brothers’ loopier excursions and not getting every one of the pieces in order.
But he comes close.
Written by “Rebecca Blunt” — possibly a nom de film for Soderbergh himself, although he’s been coy about admitting it — “Logan Lucky” is an unabashed entertainment, with a host of talented performers coloring all over the line between acting and hamming it up. Channing Tatum and Adam Driver play the two Logan brothers in the corner of the country where North Carolina backs up against Virginia. Jimmy (Tatum) is shrewd and in desperate need of money when his ex-wife (Katie Holmes, playing QVC downmarket) threatens to take their daughter (Farrah Mackenzie) off to the wilds of Charleston, S.C. His bartender brother Clyde (Driver) is back from Iraq minus a hand and much of his nerves. Their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) is about the only family member who doesn’t subscribe to the idea of a “Logan curse.”
“Logan Lucky” is the story of how this crew decides to rob the vaults of the Charlotte Motor Speedway with the help of a safe-cracker named Joe Bang, who’s played by Daniel Craig with a peroxide quiff, an accent thicker than day-old grits, and the joie de vivre of a man briefly escaping Bond-age. Being currently incarcerated (and clad in striped prison pajamas that wouldn’t be out of place in a road-show revival of “O Brother Where Art Thou”), Joe has to be busted out of jail and then snuck back in once the heist is complete. That’s just one of the interlocking tick-tock complications that makes “Logan Lucky,” at its best,” play like a good, clever game of “Mousetrap.”
There are grace notes in the cast: Dwight Yoakam as a prison warden who’ll do anything to avoid publicity, Katherine Waterston as a woman from back when Jimmy was a high school quarterback and king of the world. There are duff notes, too, like Joe Bangs’s idiot brothers (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid), who aren’t nearly as funny as Soderbergh seems to think, and “Family Guy” majordomo Seth MacFarlane, noisily imitating Mike Myers imitating a British NASCAR sponsor. Toward the end, though, a two-time best actress winner classes up the joint, and Keough carries the DNA of her royal heritage — she’s Elvis’s granddaughter, remember — with wicked wit and an actual sense of cultural place.
The rest of “Logan Lucky,” undeniably fun though it is, often plays close to the flames of regional caricature as seen by outsiders. Craig throws himself into the hick slapstick with a drawl that comes and goes; he’s having a ball playing this cartoon character, but the dumber Joe gets, the more uneasily it all plays. Where a movie like “O Brother” is patently a goofball parable, “Logan” is just realistic enough for its comedy to curdle with cruelty at the very edges.
But Soderbergh is still capable of walking a tricky line, sending up child beauty pageants while bringing the movie to a hushed standstill with Jimmy’s daughter’s rendition of John Denver’s “Country Road.” It’s the only scene in the entire movie that feels genuine, a moment of church in the midst of comic chaos. As everyone in the pageant auditorium joins in to quietly sing along, you sense a lost community reaching back for something on which they once all agreed. Your hair may briefly stand on end — and then it’s back to the robbery and the races. That sequence alone is why we should be glad Steven Soderbergh is back making movies.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Rebecca Blunt. Starring Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Hilary Swank. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, suburbs. 119 minutes. PG-13 (language, some crude comments).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.