Directed by Steven Soderbergh after a mercifully brief, four-and-a-half-year “retirement” from feature films, Logan Lucky is a caper comedy in the vein of Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven films, and stars Channing Tatum as a West Virginia laborer who initiates a convoluted plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. I hope I'll be forgiven for not wanting to review the movie so much as hug it, because this thing absolutely made my month. Ceaselessly engaging, subtly hilarious, unexpectedly exciting, and, in the end, almost embarrassingly moving, Soderbergh's latest is just what I needed – and maybe what we all need – in the wake of so much recent, national horribleness. The counter-protests and candlelight vigils have been inspiring. But for just a few minutes in Logan Lucky, I was pretty sure that true healing might actually be possible through LeAnn Rimes' soulful rendition of “America the Beautiful,” or the beauty-pageant crowd that gently crooned along to John Denver's “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
If you respond to the regional specificity, generosity of spirit, and earned sentiment the way I did, it's an easy movie to occasionally get misty-eyed over. That'll only happen, though, after numerous lines, sequences, and performers have left you nearly crying with laughter. (At one point, when prison inmates got in a hysterically heated debate with their warden over Game of Thrones – “The TV series has jumped ahead of the books!” “That makes no sense!” – I was wiping away tears.) During Logan Lucky's first half, the film is strongly reminiscent of a Coen-brothers goofball-hick farce á la Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Are Thou?, with Tatum's war-wounded Jimmy Logan assembling a rogue's-gallery of drawling help for his heist: bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver), who lost a hand in Iraq and is convinced that their family is cursed; beautician sister Mellie (Riley Keough); jailed explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig); and Bang's dimwitted brothers (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson). As with similar works by the Coens, the Logan Lucky script credited to Rebecca Blunt (a pseudonym used by Soderbergh's wife Jules Asner) gets much of its initial comedic mileage from jokes made at its characters' expense, and we're invited to chuckle at our larcenous heroes whether Joe Bang is railing against salt substitutes or Jimmy is ending an argument with a declarative “I looked it up on the Google.”
Unlike with the Coens, however, the laughter here never feels pandering or judgmental, primarily because Soderbergh, “Blunt,” and the cast treat their lower-middle-class figures and surroundings with respect. Geographically, everything from Jimmy's construction-job work site to Clyde's low-traffic tavern to the county fair with its pony rides and horseshoe games played with discarded toilet seats looks and sounds unerringly real. Logan Lucky's characters, meanwhile, may not be as worldly as they think they are, but even in their legitimately funny foolishness, they always come off as genuine. The family connections feel especially truthful, with a scene of Jimmy chatting with his grade-school daughter Sadie (a marvelous Farrah Mackenzie) during some routine auto repair, the two sharing an obviously ritualized non-handshake, an early beauty. Yet all throughout the film, you sense the distinct bonds between people who've known each other long enough to speak and behave in relaxed shorthand. We don't need more than a few patches of dialogue and Soderbergh's assured, physically revealing compositions to gauge the deep love between Jimmy and his siblings or the tension between him and his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes), and even the relationships between characters with only peripheral familiarity are readily, joyously apparent. (The spectacularly believable and direct Keough has a couple of fantastic scenes with David Denman as Bobbie Jo's new husband that fully reveal their mutually teasing friendship, one that Mellie is clearly in command of.)
It would be enough for Logan Lucky to emerge as a divinely entertaining slice-of-rural-life comedy with this much personality, detail, and honest laughs. Amazingly, everything involving the Charlotte Motor Speedway heist – its preparation, its aftermath, and its execution or lack thereof (hey, I ain't giving it away) – is just as satisfying. If you've seen previous Robin Hood crime capers of this ilk, including the Ocean's Eleven series, you know the drill: The more the filmmakers tell you about a plan's particulars, the more likely they are to go south. And part of what makes the heist here so thrilling is that we're given many of those particulars, but most of the time, we have no earthy idea what they mean. We know, for instance, that Jimmy's plot requires Clyde to be sent to prison for a brief (but not too brief) stretch of time, and a neighborhood banker to be sent a mysterious birthday cake, and Mellie to paint cockroaches with different colors of nail polish. The why behind these actions, though, is kept unrevealed until the very moments their purposes become unmistakable. Logan Lucky gives you exactly what you need on an instant-by-instant basis yet still manages to keep you guessing all the way to the end credits – and I mean that literally, as the final image is a deliciously unresolved one indicating that the film's title is either completely truthful or deeply ironic.
Despite the terrific cleverness of the plotting, there's nothing here that breaks the mold in terms of originality. And despite the mostly stellar ensemble that also features smart turns by Katherine Waterston, Sebastian Stan, and a riotous Dwight Yoakam, a couple of performers appear to be trying too hard; Seth MacFarlane, nearly unrecognizable here as a British NASCAR promoter, is little more than a stylized cartoon, and Hilary Swank is oddly stiff and affected as a tenacious FBI agent. (Her characterization does helps put the events of the finale in context, but by then, it's almost too little too late.) I'm still madly in love with this movie. From Driver's über-sensitive take on a traditional Tim Blake Nelson hayseed to the deserved comeuppance for Mellie's snippy beauty-shop customer to the continued awesomeness of the eternally underrated Channing Tatum, Logan Lucky kept me almost blissfully happy – so happy, in truth, that my delight about the end of Steven Soderbergh's self-imposed feature-film exile is almost an afterthought. Here's hoping that Daniel Day-Lewis' announced retirement proves to be similar hogwash.
THE GLASS CASTLE
Even though its episodic, flashback-laden structure makes the movie feel similar to other big-screen memoirs, writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton's The Glass Castle is still something rather strange: a tale of harrowing events that seems to go out of its way to keep you from being truly harrowed. Based on Jeannette Walls' bestselling account of her youth spent with two loving, bohemian, but, at times, carelessly negligent parents, the film boasts scenes of raw and terrible power: young Jeannette set ablaze by a kitchen-stove fire while her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) absentmindedly paints in another room; Jeannette's father Rex (Woody Harrelson) teaching the girl to swim by throwing her, repeatedly and violently, in the deep end of a pool; a second-floor fight between the parents that results in Rose Mary hanging from a window; Jeannette catching Rex's elderly, offhandedly cruel mother (a terrifying Robin Bartlett) in the act of molesting Jeannette's little brother. But the effect of all these aching moments from Walls' life in the 1960s and '70s is diminished by the scenes set in the '80s and '90s, with Brie Larson playing the now-grown Jeannette – a beautiful New York socialite with a charming, handsome fiancé (Max Greenfield) and a career as a high-paid gossip columnist. Clearly, adult Jeannette is haunted by her past, especially now that Mom and Dad are squatting in an abandoned Lower East Side building mere blocks away. But Jeannette is at least alive, as are her folks and the three siblings who also grew up in that dysfunctional family, and as we're shown early on, everyone at least knows how to fake pleasantries when they're together. I'm hardly arguing for a grimmer experience than the one Cretton occasionally provides, yet knowing so early that the whole Walls clan makes it through (and with smiles, to boot) both dulls the flashbacks' collective strength and makes its uglier scenes feel kind of exploitative.
On the whole, though, the movie works, if not quite as well as its best elements lead you to hope. Larson, although quite touching in her final scenes, is stuck with an only-half-realized figure to play, and seems simultaneously too old for the role (when Jeannette is a teenager) and too young (when she's an upscale Manhattanite). But the younger Jeannettes (Chandler Head and Ella Anderson) are both magnificent, with Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham allowing Anderson and Harrelson several serene, beautiful scenes of father/daughter connection. Watts is traditionally stunning whenever her characters are allowed to hit rock bottom, and while she's in fine form throughout, the performer has moments of ravaged intensity here that might make you shudder (and grin) with memories of Mulholland Dr. and 21 Grams. And Harrelson has perhaps never been this charismatic, scary, and soulful on-screen, even if he's not allowed to be as complex as Jeannette Walls' real-life father no doubt was. (This Rex is basically a more verbose, more unhinged version of Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic.) The fascinating, if flawed, material keeps you engaged in The Glass Castle, but it's Harrelson who delivers both the horror and the heart as a man who, as one of his children tells it, spent every day consuming four packs of cigarettes and two quarts of booze. The keys to healthy living they are not, but in Harrelson's hands, they're clearly the ingredients for an indelible portrayal.
THE HITMAN'S BODYGUARD
Sometimes all it takes is an opening sequence to tell you that a movie's not going to be your personal cup of tea. Sometimes all it takes is a font. During the first five minutes of The Hitman's Bodyguard, I was already bummed and irritated by the thunderously loud score that was drowning out the dialogue, by the restless editing that served only to showcase the coolness of Ryan Reynolds and his stubble, and by Reynolds' breezy comic indifference that suggested another Deadpool performance without the accompanying Deadpool fun. But if I'm being honest, I was off-put the second I saw the film's credits appear in that capitalized, italicized, block-letter style that immediately announces “Bruckheimer-esque action ahead!” – a title-card presentation so inherently clichéd that the Melissa McCarthy spoof Spy employed it for its very first joke.
Put simply, there's nothing in director Patrick Hughes' brutal and profane blockbuster-by-the-numbers that isn't given away by that font, and if that isn't a deal-breaker for you, by all means have a blast. The rest of us will have little to do but quietly suffer listening to Reynolds' bodyguard and Samuel L. Jackson's contract killer hurl stale and unfunny insults while, naturally, developing a grudging respect for one another, with the inevitable, tedious car chases and gunfights and hand-to-hand combat attempting to mask how stunningly empty the experience would be without them. Given what feels like Gary Oldman's gazillionth role as murderous Russian ham and the ultra-violent, slow-motion melees accompanied by radio-friendly pop tunes (with Lionel Ritchie's “Hello” and Foreigner's “I Want to Know What Love Is” the primary hits being “honored”), the only real surprise here is co-star Salma Hayek, who proves somehow able to scream “Motherf---er!!!” at a volume that would deafen Jackson himself. The Hitman's Bodyguard is the fidget spinner of action comedies. It's just something to do while you wait for something more interesting to do.