Steven Soderbergh serves up a messy capitalist critique in the shell of a slick, simplistic essay film.
2016 was such a nightmare year – filled with incendiary political campaigns and literally every famous person we ever loved dying before their time – that one of the biggest financial scandals in global history feels all but lost to the public eye. The Panama Papers, a cache of documents leaked to the media that detailed the massive efforts of Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca & Co. to provide more than 200,000 tax havens for rich folks, came out that same year. It served as a big honking reminder that the wealthy hoard their assets in shell companies and bearer shares, evading national tax laws and overall contributing greatly to the world’s growing income inequality. It’s the kind of bombshell story that seems a perfect fit for the slick essay-film treatment of something like The Big Short; unfortunately, as Steven Soderbergh‘s The Laundromat proves, this might not be the case.
Ostensibly, The Laundromat takes an episodic structure to examine Mossack Fonseca’s activities and the impact it has on working people and wealthy clients alike, with Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) as our guides. Wearing all manner of ostentatious tuxes from one absurd setting to another, they monologue to the camera about the selective ethics of wealth and make excuses for their own behavior. “We are real people!” they cry, as if we’re not already aware that this is based on a true story.
Granted, Oldman and Banderas are having a grand, playful time, as the vehicle for Soderbergh’s signature playfulness — Oldman, in particular, throws on a delightfully cartoonish Herzog patter as Mossack. When Soderbergh’s formal tricks work, it’s largely due to our alluringly craven impresarios, even as their unbearable theatricality threatens to topple the whole thing over.
It’s a shame, then, that the rest of The Laundromat is too shaggy and self-absorbed to work in concert. Zipping around to various vignettes around the world, we see a grieving widow (Meryl Streep) uncovering Mossack’s misdeeds in America; a Chinese politico (Rosalind Chao) dealing with a German blackmailer (Matthias Schoenaerts); a ferry boat captain (Robert Patrick) learning from his hapless accountant and friend (David Schwimmer) that their attempt to “save a little money” led to them being insured by a shell company that doesn’t really exist. Soderbergh can’t seem to find a really strong throughline besides ‘modern global systems prevent the meek from inheriting the Earth.’ Which, I mean, duh.
But like Banderas and Oldman’s smug proclamations of being untouchable, there’s a frustrating nihilism at the heart of The Laundromat – a sense of helplessness that feels practically baked into the fabric of the film’s prescriptive narrative. All these things and more will keep going, even after the Panama Papers leak, so why not have a little fun with it? Soderbergh strains for playful, but lands in a far too condescending place. At least The Big Short seemed angry about the rich; here, Fonseca helpfully points out that “the director of this film has five shell companies” too.
Still, that doesn’t mean Soderbergh can’t have a little fun from time to time. The one true highlight of these segments is a droll bedroom farce involving Charles (Nonso Anozie), a multi-millionaire who hopes to buy his daughter’s favor for sleeping with her best friend on her graduation day with millions of dollars in bearer shares. Hijinks ensue, the daughter is screwed (almost literally) out of her money, and Charles gets away with it all. Even when the figures in question have done nothing wrong, and have just followed the rules, the rich can still squirm their way out of what’s owed.
The problem is that The Laundromat is preaching to the choir, and its pinballing tone and narrative prevent us from digging any deeper into the motivations and nuances of hoarding wealth and its effects on global society. The protagonist of The Laundromat is money, and like a dollar bill passing from hand to hand, it spends only a short time in the pocket of each of its occupants. (Well, there’s also Meryl Streep in brownface in a dual role, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)
Soderbergh strains for playful, but lands in a far too condescending place.
Soderbergh’s usually really good about making wildly entertaining, playful films about economic wrongdoing — Erin Brockovich, Side Effects, The Informant! — but The Laundromat feels like a misstep. Hell, just a few months ago he hit big with High Flying Bird, one of his best, most incisive films in ages. But here, he can’t find a more meaningful inroad to discussing the Panama Papers than some cheeky acknowledgment that the rich will always find a way to escape justice, and even scramble to distance themselves from the crimes they commit.
In the end, Soderbergh makes the ninety-minute version of one of those Vox video essays about income inequality that autoplay every time you scroll past Facebook. It’s a surprise Robert Reich didn’t show up at any point.
The Laundromat is currently playing in select theaters, and hits Netflix October 18.