Director – Steven Soderbergh
Cast – Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, David Schwimmer, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Matthias Schoenaerts
It is a sign of my limited imagination, more than any evidence Steven Soderbergh has provided through his filmography, that when I first heard about The Laundromat, I visualised a thrilling exposé of the Panama Papers scandal.
Soderbergh hasn’t made a conventional film in his life. The Laundromat isn’t as experimental has his last feature — High Flying Bird, shot on iPhones and also released on Netflix — but it takes a wholly unexpected approach to a story that we thought we understood. One can’t really criticise a film for not shaping up to one’s own version of what it could have been. But Soderbergh and writer Scott Z Burns certainly want to provoke outrage, and at that, the film is way off the mark.
Watch The Laundromat trailer here
Its ineffectiveness on this front can be blamed on Soderbergh and Burns’ emotionally distant storytelling. Designed to mimic the fourth wall-breaking style of Adam McKay’s The Big Short — another, far more engaging film that tackled a very serious corruption scandal through accessible gimmicks — The Laundromat is a tonally inconsistent misfire. It cannot decide whether to perform the duties of a serious exposé, or whether to satirise the scandal that took the world by storm in 2016.
Millions of documents detailing the financial activities of hundreds of thousands of offshore accounts were leaked by an anonymous source in 2015. Over the next year, the documents were analysed with the assistance of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and the first wave of news stories were published in 2016. Overnight, several important cultural and political figures from all over the world — including Soderbergh and Burns, apparently — were revealed to have created offshore accounts to avoid paying taxes in their home countries.
Meryl Streep in a still from Netflix’s The Laundromat.
Strictly speaking, the film says, this practice isn’t illegal, per se, but the muddled details of how the rich got away with it, and why their schemes ended up affecting the poor, is essentially what the movie is attempting to unpack.
And it does it this in the most bizarre fashion imaginable. Soderbergh and Burns have had quite a fantastic run together, uniting to expose socio-economic injustices and to champion the spirit of the common man. Both Contagion and Side Effects utilise a similar, vignette-y style to address malpractices in the healthcare industry, while The Informant! is very much about how corporate machinery has a tendency to consume the individual.
The Laundromat is absolutely a tragedy, in which Messrs Mossack and Fonseca, played by the ridiculously over-the-top Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, appear like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to narrate the story of their own downfall. They offer the sort of defence that the founders of file sharing websites such as PirateBay (and indeed, drug dealers) have offered in the past — that they were merely the facilitators, not the orchestrators of the alleged crimes.
Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas in a still from The Laundromat.
The Mossack and Fonseca scenes are quite possibly the most inspired idea that Soderbergh and Burns have had, and Oldman and Banderas are clearly having a blast, even if their performances are wildly out of sync with the rest of the film (that isn’t their fault). Visually, to have them alternately crib and educate, directly into the camera, against a variety of green-screened backdrops, adds a necessary layer of artifice to the story. In fact, the final scene is so gloriously deceptive, so bitingly bittersweet, that I’m convinced that Soderbergh lifted it from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, the great Indian satire about corruption and the common man.
But none of these disjointed aesthetic flourishes can make for an emotionally engaging story. Even the great Meryl Streep’s composite character, who is meant to represent the downtrodden, can’t provide the required spark that would’ve elevated The Laundromat considerably. And although it may be thought-provoking for all the wrong reasons, and annoyingly unfocused, but an ambitious failure by Steven Soderbergh is still infinitely more interesting than what most mainstream filmmakers would consider absolute winners.