Movie Roundup: “Logan Lucky” and “Lemon”.
Did anybody actually believe Steven Soderbergh when he announced that he’d retired from filmmaking? Nevermind the fact that, since 2013, Soderbergh has given us two properties — his visually dazzling and poignant Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” and two seasons of the engrossing, groundbreaking proto-medical drama “The Knick” — that are as purely cinematic as anything you’re going to see in a movie theater this year.
For Soderbergh, filmmaking seems roughly akin to breathing oxygen. It is a primal, almost fundamental task that he seems drawn to on an instinctual level. Soderbergh’s declaration that he was done directing movies was such a blow to so many film mavens that the presence of a new Soderbergh film in 2017 — the breezy, lightning-fast heartland heist movie “Logan Lucky” — is almost enough to lift us collectively out of our Trump-related doldrums.
Over the course of his long and prolific career, Soderbergh has made just about every kind of movie you could think of: the conversation-heavy indie chamber dramas that helped to define the Sundance brand in the 1990’s (“Sex, Lies & Videotape”), sprawling, Dickensian drug procedurals (“Traffic”), high-profile remakes (“Solaris”), dark period comedies (“The Informant!”), bare-knuckle action flicks (“Haywire”) and that movie about male strippers that everybody and their mother seems to love (“Magic Mike”). The writer/director/editor/cinematographer is also known for a kind of cheeky, casually detached crime comedy molded in the style of classic 1950’s big-screen entertainments: mainly, his near-perfect “Out of Sight,” the underrated gangster tone poem “The Limey”, and his widely-beloved “Ocean’s” trilogy.
The “Ocean’s” series will probably be a considerable part of Soderbergh’s cinematic legacy, and he brings a lightness and intelligence to these films that lifts them out of the formulaic swamps they can get trapped in when they don’t quite work. The real pleasures of the “Ocean’s” movies have very little to do with the particulars of cracking safes and making off with boatloads of money. No, anyone who truly appreciates the “Ocean’s” trilogy will tell you that the charm of these films lies largely in the cast’s interpersonal dynamic. Soderbergh has access to some of the country’s most adored movie stars (Clooney, Pitt, Damon), and in utilizing their talents in a familiar tale of salty talk and big scores, he allows us to see sides of them we may have been previously unaware of, while still utilizing the very qualities that made them who they are.
Watching “Logan Lucky,” you may feel, at times, that Soderbergh’s feature-length comeback is like a scaled-down Trump Country spin on the blueprint for an unwritten “Ocean’s” movie. At one point, a character in the movie even refers to the movie’s central gang as “Ocean’s 7/11”. A lot of the basic ingredients are there: movie stars playing smooth operators and greedy buffoons, a ludicrous robbery plot, and Soderbergh’s refined eye for framing and symmetry (not only does the director remain his own D.P. here, but he also penned the script under the nom de plume of Rebecca Blunt and did the marketing himself). And while “Logan Lucky” is as much outright fun as anything that the director has made since his mid-90’s heyday, it’s also a craftier and more subtly compelling picture than many viewers might be expecting.
This is not to suggest that “Logan Lucky” sees Soderbergh shifting into dramatist mode, as he did with his epic, uncompromising two-hander, “Che”. On the contrary, most of “Logan Lucky” is a country-fried lark: a shit-kicking hillbilly escapade whose primary goal is to give its audience a rousing good time. And it must be said that, for all its flaws, “Logan Lucky” provides unpretentious fun in spades. Like “Magic Mike” and its superior sequel “Magic Mike XXL,” “Logan Lucky” benefits from a laid-back attitude and a surplus of soul, not to mention relaxed, committed performances from its cast and a screw-tightening third act that’s as loopily enjoyable as anything Soderbergh’s ever constructed.
What gives “Logan Lucky” a big boost is its surprising generosity of spirit. A movie like this doesn’t necessarily need the lived-in atmosphere and weirdo personality that Mr. Soderbergh so thoughtfully provides, but “Logan Lucky,” at its best, simply feels like the work of an accomplished veteran director with nothing more to prove. Whereas Soderbergh has been known to prank his audiences in the past, “Logan Lucky” is a crime comedy of unusual texture and depth. Soderbergh hasn’t made this movie to punk an audience or assert his directorial gifts. He’s made this movie so that mainstream multiplex crowds can enjoy it. The result is thoroughly winning, even if it lacks the staying power of the director’s classic films.
“Logan Lucky” sees Soderbergh taking a cue from his contemporaries Joel and Ethan Coen, constructing a wackadoodle lowlife farce with flywheel ingenuity. Every character is a bizarre archetype, from Adam Driver’s one-armed war veteran/bartender, to an unctuous, social-media obsessed British racecar sponsor, played with a punchable mug and endless smarm by none other than “Family Guy” head honcho Seth MacFarlane. There’s even a character named Joe Bang — referred to, in one amusing instance, as “Joseph Bang” — who turns out to be a prissy, tattooed, bleached-blonde, soft-boiled-egg-loving explosives expert played with fruitcake intensity by the most serious Bond of all, Daniel Craig.
It’s an unusually zany mode of operating for the famously removed Soderbergh, with a mile-a-minute plot that includes barroom fisticuffs, a poignant karaoke rendition of John Denver, and gummy bears and cockroaches used as accessories in a prison break. And yet, unlike the Coens, Soderbergh never paints his small-town characters in condescending strokes. While the movie’s trailers almost made the resulting feature look like a cadre of Hollywood actors enacting regressive yokel stereotypes on a movie studio’s dime, “Logan Lucky” has more affection and hard-won respect for small-town America than its jokey veneer might suggest.
The central Logan of “Logan Lucky” is former West Virginia football hopeful Jimmy Logan, played with maturity and sly grace by late-period Soderbergh muse Channing Tatum. Modest, resolute and just a little out of his depth, Jimmy is a divorced dad who works a construction gig on a land plot that exists just underneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway race track. When we first meet Jimmy, he’s being laid off his job for a bum leg. Jimmy’s strange brother Clyde (a marvelously deadpan Adam Driver) believes the family is cursed. The Logan sister Mellie — a hell-raising hairstylist played in a singular key of ferocious authenticity by “American Honey’s” Riley Keough — believes that the reasons for the brother’s continual failures are more rooted in practical economic troubles. Still, all Jimmy wants is to be a good dad to his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), an adorable little moppet with whom Tatum shares a warm and honest rapport.
To remedy his current financial woes, Jimmy concocts a surprisingly clever eleven-step plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway (one of his steps is “remember, shit happens”). As it turns out, all the venue’s many vendors funnel all their earnings into the same interconnected series of underground tubes and tunnels — as one side character remarks, it’s a veritable “freeway for cash”.
To pull off the job, the brothers Logan will need the assistance of the maniacal Joe Bang, who is a mere five months away from being released from his penitentiary sentence, as well as the ground-level services of Bang’s dim-witted redneck brothers Fish (“Vinyl’s” Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson). While the robbery itself often feels hilariously inconsequential, the absurd intersection of narrow escapes and cunning schemes that make up “Logan Lucky’s” raucous third act is about as live-wire as this characteristically cool director gets. It’s thrilling to see Soderbergh drop his prestige aspirations and cut loose like this, even if the film sometimes lacks the devastating emotional wallop of earlier masterworks like “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich”.
As he did in “Magic Mike,” Tatum anchors “Logan Lucky” with his sensitive and perceptive turn, effortlessly playing a half-dumb working man who’s not nearly as dumb as he looks. Soderbergh clearly sees and appreciates the actor’s many facets, while less patient filmmakers might simply see a pretty face and a healthy overage of of charisma. Driver’s slurring delivery and droll gait elicit laughter without him having to even mutter a word of dialogue, though Clyde’s pronunciation of the word “cauliflower” nearly had me on the floor.
David Denman of “The Office” plays the new beau of Jimmy’s former girl Bobbi Jo (Katie Holmes) as the kind of utterly specific soccer dad archetype you only see in the modern American south (polo shirt tucked into board shorts with tiny boats on them, hat with the Ford motors logo, etc.) Elsewhere, Riley Keough continues her trend of stealing most of whatever movie she’s in, and Katherine Waterston has a small handful of unexpected, lovely scenes as a onetime high school classmate of Jimmy’s who’s gone on to become a mobile health professional.
Only Hillary Swank, doing a forced impression of her former “Million Dollar Baby” director Clint Eastwood, fails to make an impression. Swank’s characterization here is a grotesque parody of real acting, and I’m not sure why Soderbergh guided her in this particular direction, but her attention-getting and overblown turn seemed to me to be “Logan Lucky’s” one glaring false note. MacFarlane fares a little better, partially because the character is written to be intentionally irritating and hey, a movie like this needs a bad guy, right? Still, these and other minor flaws — some slipshod editing here and there, a few country-fried music cues that are a bit on the nose — are the only thing threatening to sink “Logan Lucky,” which is otherwise so buoyant and wonderful that its shortcomings quickly recede into the rearview mirror, like towering pines in the driver’s side mirror of a Mack pick-up.
Where will Steven Soderbergh go next? He’s been tapped to direct an “interactive” drama series titled “Mosaic” starring Sharon Stone, further solidifying his renegade tendencies as he gracefully settles into middle age. The climax of “Logan Lucky” leaves the door open for a sequel, but given the movie’s tepid box office performance this past weekend, I doubt that’s a door that will be open for very long. What stayed with me about “Logan Lucky” was its winning underdog spirit. This is a movie that, in spite of being made with Tinseltown clout and in the spirit of classic mid-century caper pictures, has an Everyman philosophy about its filmmaking. The movie’s heroes are a band of mismatched oddballs who are nevertheless pure of heart, while its villains are snarling prison wardens, energy-drink-swilling douchebags, and unctuous agents of the federal government. After decades of bucking mainstream moviemaking convention at every turn, Mr. Soderbergh still fancies himself an outsider. Bless him, and bless “Logan Lucky” too. It’s a ten-ton gas with style and heart to spare.
I’ll say this for writer/director Janicza Bravo: with only one feature film under her belt, she’s already begun to form a style all her own.
I first became aware of Bravo when I saw “Juneteenth,” a conceptually daring and uneven episode of the brilliant FX sitcom “Atlanta” where Donald Glover’s Earn was given an illuminating and terrifying glimpse inside a cloistered Caucasian ecosystem. I was later shown her disturbing short film “Gregory Go Boom,” a sour little number about a misanthrope in a wheelchair who wants to lose his virginity. Clearly, Bravo is interested in humiliation and failure as sources of comedy; her work is entirely in keeping with the intentionally grating, avant-garde anti-comedy practiced by icons like Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, which is to say nothing of inevitable comparisons to Rick Alverson’s poisonous and powerful cinematic hate letters “Entertainment” and “The Comedy”.
Bravo is married to comedian Brett Gelman, a (former) Adult Swim fixture and anti-comedy veteran whose specialty seems to be a self-aware blend of pathetic white-guy rage and coy disavowal. Gelman stars in Bravo’s feature-length debut “Lemon” (which the two co-wrote together), playing a character who could charitably be described as a waste of flesh made manifest. After having seen “Lemon”, the prospect of why any audience would want to spend an hour and a half in this character’s company remains a mystery to me. It’s tempting to wonder if Bravo sees some kind of buried humanity beneath the icy veneer of this cretinous specimen, or at the very least, perhaps a real, scary fury that might one day bubble up into violence. No such luck: “Lemon,” though it undoubtedly gets points for originality, is a smug and oddly vacant exercise in audience trolling. The fact that it contains scenes of rhapsodic beauty and terror only makes this review more difficult to consider.
“Lemon” is constantly in the process of reacting to itself, so it never gives its audience a sincere moment to react to what we’re seeing onscreen. The characters talk at each other and over each other, never stopping to listen or process what the other person in the conversation might be saying. The movie occasionally pops with bugged-out, surreal genius, but its rhythms seem indifferent: it’s more of a procession of strange, off-putting scenes than an actual movie with a forward narrative thrust. I have no doubt that Gelman and Bravo will make something brilliant in the future: there is promise for days in “Lemon,” which is as divorced from the standards of mainstream comedy as anything you’ll see in 2017. What the movie lacks is a concrete perspective on the misery it depicts. Instead, the movie presents us with a litany of ugly and disturbing scenarios while stubbornly refusing to elucidate on their purpose.
Gelman plays Isaac Lachmann, a man who may have been a serial killer in another life. Isaac is one of the most hateful and unappealing fictional creations to be seen in a movie this year — which is just as well, since playing hateful, unappealing assholes seems to be Gelman’s specialty (he’s quite good at it, lest you consider that to be a backhanded compliment). Isaac’s life is a dire slog: he lives with his frazzled blind girlfriend Ramona (Judy Greer), who despises him and is always taking trips out of town just so she can get away from him. He teaches an acting class, where he lords over his students with the self-impressed authority of an autocrat. In particular, he’s given to doting on a coiffed, unbearable would-be thespian named Alex (Michael Cera, who also starred in “Gregory Go Boom”) while taking calculated steps to eviscerate the self-esteem of his kind and naive pupil, Tracy (Gillian Jacobs, whom Gelman shared some juicy scenes with on the Netflix series “Love”).
A light, of sorts, enters Isaac’s dreadful existence when he meets a lovely woman named Cleo, played by Nia Long. What a smart, interesting woman like Cleo might see in the prospect of a future with this dead-eyed loser is never explained, though perhaps Bravo has her reasons and she simply doesn’t feel like sharing them. When Isaac is brought to meet Nia’s extended family, Isaac thoughtlessly peppers his conversation with insensitive asides about race (when he mentions that he was mugged by a gang once, he makes sure to follow that statement up by clarifying “it was a Latino gang, not a black gang”). Isaac’s own family is a cartoonish nightmare of ugly Jewish stereotypes: a collection of braying, self-involved monsters played by talented actors like Fred Melamed, Martin Starr and Shiri Appleby.
To be honest, I was troubled by the depiction of modern Jewish-American life in “Lemon,” though I must also note that one of the film’s credited writers (Gelman) is Jewish. The reliance on stereotypes of Jews as being loud, aggressive and pushy is not a particularly novel technique, and it seemed to me to be “Lemon’s” equivalent of the kind of ironic hipster racism that was lampooned in something like “The Comedy”. The difference is that Rick Alverson’s dark comedy masterpiece examines this mentality while Bravo prefers to merely wallow in it.
The movie’s glib take on Jews seems especially hollow when juxtaposed with the appealing, one-dimensional affability of Cleo’s family, who are portrayed as being unimpeachably decent in a way that suggests a discernible lack of character development rather than genuine empathy. In a later scene, Isaac invites Alex over to his home for dinner, and proceeds to try to seduce him in one of the year’s most uncomfortable scenes. When that doesn’t work, he threatens the kid’s life. Is Isaac gay? Does he have suppressed homicidal tendencies, as hinted at during a creepy scene where Isaac tells Ramona that he could murder her if he wanted to? “Lemon” never elaborates on any of the complex themes it purports to explore, though I’m sure the jaundiced hipster crowd for whom the movie is meant will appreciate the movie for its undoubtable stylistic merits.
Michael Cera gives the movie’s best performance: his Alex is the kind of appallingly un-self-aware L.A. archetype who brags about his trips abroad to anyone who will listen, and mentions, sans-irony, that he’s using colors and animals to inform his artistic process. No shit. Truth be told, there’s more dimension and variety in Cera’s turn here than in Gelman’s. The normally more unhinged comic portrays Isaac as a chilling cipher, bereft of most ordinary human emotions save for spite and self-pity. It’s certainly brave for Bravo and Gelman to force their audience to loathe this character, but the movie’s star never suggests much of an inner life for Isaac beyond the mess he perpetuates over the movie’s brief 82-minute runtime. On the sidelines, Shiri Appleby makes a nasty impression as Isaac’s demanding, shrewish sister, while Nia Long lends her portrait of Cleo more depth than the movie’s screenplay probably warrants.
It’s hard to really dismiss a movie like “Lemon,” because films this unique don’t come along very often. And yet, Bravo’s directorial debut seems to beg the question of how far you can go on “vision” alone. “Vision” is great, sure, but so are well-developed characters and an engaging story. The movie is audacious in its conception, but that might be part of the problem: “Lemon,” though its best scenes linger in the mind like chapters from a bad dream, sometimes feels as though its writers never got past the “conception” phase of the moviemaking process. Unlike “Logan Lucky” — which uses an unoriginal, time-tested conceit as an anchor for an impeccably-crafted piece of genre entertainment — “Lemon” has novelty to spare, and the movie’s most memorable moments suggest a genuinely scathing take on white-guy privilege and L.A. ennui. What the film intends to be, what it wants to say about race and class in L.A., whether it wants to be funny, sad, embarrassing, or all three… reader, I can’t really say.
Grades: “Logan Lucky,” B+. “Lemon,” B-.