Criticism for The Laundromat, Netflix’s Steven Soderbergh directed answer to Adam McKay, has been generous. This is, by all accounts, a cheap, intensely smug and fundamentally patronising exercise in flippancy. Of course, it’s evidently not cheap. Aside from Soderbergh’s likely high price tag, the film stacks debts to a pedigree of acting talent that stretches from leading turns by Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas to cameos from the likes of David Schwimmer, Sharon Stone and Matthias Schoenaerts. In delivery, the film is so irksome it’s almost enough to encourage support for Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca’s ludicrous attempts to block the film as defamatory. If only it were that entertaining.
Born of the book Secrecy World by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jake Bernstein, The Laundromat concerns itself with the exposé of the illicit world of allegedly legal money laundering, which followed the 2016 leaking of the Panama Papers. It is that remarkable beast of a film that somehow simultaneously dumbs down its subject, whilst entirely failing to render its complexities any less baffling.
Oldman and Banderas play lawyers Mossack and Fonsenca, a duo so corrupt that it’s easy to believe they don’t consider themselves to be so. Whilst Banderas is hammy in the role, Oldman – complete with god awful German accent – is down right daft. A script by Scott Z. Burns sees the pair tear asunder the fourth wall in would be smart explanatory inserts, designed solely to show off the apparent intellectuality of the production: ‘Credit is just the future tense of the language of money.’ In one insufferable flick of the key, Mossack gleefully observes that tax avoiding shell companies are so common that ‘the director of this movie has five.’ Burns, Fonsenca follows, even has one.
Fairing no better, in a stinker of wasted casting, Streep lends her talents halfheartedly to the paper thin part of twee housewife Ellen Martin. A tasteless opening for character sees Ellen lose her husband (James Cromwell) to a freak boating accident en route to Niagara Falls. On learning that she will receive no compensation for the loss – the boat was insured by a company insured by a company and so on – Ellen embarks on a global voyage of discovery and plummets down a pitch black rabbit hole of secrecy and lies. If her debut scenes in the film ring false, this is nothing on her painfully vainglorious conclusion. Rarely does the film feel more like a TED talk revamped for the BuzzFeed generation.
A lack of emotional depth is key to the faults of The Laundromat. Ellen’s story is presented in scattershot episodes, with sketch asides breaking any sense of developmental flow. One minute we are witnessing the tragic collapse of Ellen’s attempt to buy herself a Las Vegas condo, overlooking the spot she first met her late husband, and the next Soderbergh has inexplicably cut to tales of the super rich and super wretched.
There’s Nonso Anozie’s South African businessman, whose malpractice in money has given him not undue faith in his ability to get away with just about anything he likes, and Rosalind Chao as real life Chinese lawyer Gu Kailai, whose attempts to iron out her husband’s record would later see her convicted for murder. Neither tale has breathing space enough to satisfy, nor truly builds on the bigger picture. Whilst it is transparently clear that the aim here is to construct a narrative Matryoshka akin to the shell networks uncovered by the Panama Papers themselves, the delivery lacks cinematic satisfaction.
The fact of the matter is that The Laundromat simply isn’t satisfying. The acting is hammy and presentation unbearably self-righteous, which is really quite something for a film that has every right to be. Soderbergh’s return from so called retirement began reasonably well with Logan Lucky and even Unsane but the confidence on display here lacks justification. This is a film made by the sort of man who creates pseudonyms to suggest it was not he who edited nor photographed it and yet has no intention of maintaining the secret. The pride is astonishing.