I’ve been thinking about two movies I watched this year, Logan Lucky and Rough Night. Both can be considered black comedies about people getting away with crimes. In Logan Lucky, two sets of siblings rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600. In Rough Night, a group of friends snort a bunch of cocaine and accidentally murder a male stripper in Miami. In my review, I ripped Rough Night for being morally bankrupt, but didn’t feel the same way about Logan Lucky. Why?
In a typical crime drama or thriller involving the protagonist engaging in criminal activity, there’s always a consequence for the crime. Either the character loses the money, a partner or friend gets hurt or killed, he or she ends up in jail, or some other misfortune befalls them. This is not only because stories are expected to impart lessons, but also because the film makers either don’t want to promote or glamorize criminal activity or don’t want to be seen as doing so.
Imagine a movie where the protagonists commit a crime or series of crimes and get away with it (ala Natural Born Killers (1994) or Ocean’s Eleven (2001) – Neither movie is a comedy but both had comedic moments). Now imagine a movie where the protagonists not only get away with committing a crime but profit from it as well… and imagine we’re asked to laugh at that situation.
In Ocean’s Eleven, we root for the thieves because casino owner Terry Benedict is a huge asshole and besides, it turned out Danny Ocean was more interested in winning back his ex wife than stealing the money. He even ends up back in prison. Even though technically the “bad guys” win, we perceive them as good guys because they are reuniting true love and punishing a faceless, evil casino without anyone getting hurt.
In Logan Lucky, Jimmy Logan steals the money out of desperation because he sees it as his only way to stay close to his daughter after his ex-wife plans to move out of state with her new husband. No one is hurt by the crime. The Charlotte Motor Speedway doesn’t even lose out because they reap profit from the insurance payout. Jimmy even donates some of the money to a good cause. And, to top it off, we see an undercover FBI agent at the end, suggesting there may be consequences after all.
This same formula is missing from Rough Night. In Rough Night, the film makers attempted to make their crime seem moral by making it a case of mistaken identity. The stripper they killed was actually a bank robber. But they didn’t know he was a bank robber when he died and they tried to cover up the crime instead of reporting it to the police. The “I guess it’s okay because he was a crook” ending doesn’t really work, since as far as I know, it’s still illegal to commit manslaughter and cover it up in America even if the victim was a bad guy.
Stealing money and manslaughter are not equivalent crimes in the public’s eyes. In both Logan Lucky and Ocean’s Eleven, stealing large sums of money is portrayed as harmless because no one really gets hurt. The Charlotte Motor Speedway actually makes money in the end, and we know the casinos in Ocean’s Eleven will eventually recover from this blow to their bottom line.
In Rough Night, the protagonists actually kill someone while high on cocaine, attempt to cover it up, and are rewarded for doing so. It helps the main character’s political career, while the drug use and photos of that drug use are simply brushed off like they never happened. Even in The Hangover (2009), the characters emphasize destroying photographic evidence of their wild weekend.
That audiences are expected to laugh at this scenario is pretty reprehensible, even in today’s morally un-anchored society.