The Laundromat: Soderbergh’s newest can't decide between caper and sermon
Anyone who loved Margot Robbie drinking champagne in a bubble bath explaining subprime mortgages in The Big Short should appreciate Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas—as Mossack and Fonseca, respectively—talking economics at the start of The Laundromat. These Panamanian lawyers explain how they basically represented hundreds of thousands of shell companies that ended up making rich people richer by defrauding ordinary business holders and individuals out of insurance payments and other benefits.
Steven Soderbergh’s film, which stems from the Panama Papers, takes a cheeky approach to telling this story “based on actual secrets.” He uses several case studies that explicate how Mossack and Fonseca were able to get away with what they did—until they didn’t. The results are uneven, but they are never uninteresting.
The Laundromat opens with the story of Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who is widowed in a boating accident. She is promised 7-figure compensation, but receives a far smaller settlement than expected from the wrongful death case. Matthew Quirk (David Schwimmer), who manages the insurance for the boat company, comes to learn that the company he purchased insurance from was actually owned by another company, which was held by another company that owns nothing. It a shell game that is more like an empty matruyshka doll. Soderbergh plays this story out in ways that humanize “the meek” (as the film calls its victims). Ellen dreams of owning an apartment in Las Vegas overlooking the street where she has fond memories of her late husband. Matthew just tried to buy insurance for less and ended up getting screwed.
The stories are compelling, and there is sympathy for the cheated characters. Ellen struggles to get Mossack or Fonseca on the phone, and she even travels to Nevis to track down Malchus Irvin Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright) who may hold the key to her missing money. How Boncamper’s own story plays out provides a satisfying digression—in part because it involves one of the film’s juicy double crosses.
Part of the fun Soderbergh is having with The Laundromat is to spin (pun not intended) the stories in ways that sucker the audience. There is a surprising fantasy sequence and an episode involving two gringos (Will Forte and Chris Parnell) who accidently stumble on something they should not see. These throwaway gags are amusing, but ultimately unnecessary. They can feel like padding in a film that is only 95 minutes but feels longer. Soderbergh also plays too much wink-wink with the audience, with meta moments that feel cutesy and distracting.
Part of the film’s tonal issue is that he creates a lengthy drama involving Simone (Jessica Allain) discovering her father Charles (Nonso Anozie) is sleeping with her roommate, Astrid (Miracle Washington), unbeknownst to her mother Miranda (Nikki Amuka-Bird). But this chapter is designed to provide a lesson on bearer shares, and show, ironically, that this upstanding client of Mossack and Fonseca is well, immoral. The story delays making its point as place settings and a cheerleading squad are shown being brought out for Simone’s graduation party. There is no great need for more conspicuous consumption to be on display here, as the lessons about wealth and inequality are shared and money changes hands to protect Charles’ secret. The real payoff of this segment is in what ultimately transpires, and it stings.
However, it’s rinse and repeat as Soderbergh next travels to China where greed undoes Maywood (Matthew Schoenaerts) a businessman and Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao), his business partner.
As lessons about tax avoidance abound, viewers may be fatigued by all the sermonizing. And there is sermonizing—some lectures are even delivered in a church! The individual segments here are greater than the whole. Soderbergh gets especially preachy as the film lumbers to its climax, which includes a not entirely surprising twist and a big speech about the perils of greed that will likely fall on deaf ears.
The Laundromat does have its pleasures—Banderas and Oldman seem to be enjoying their roles as amoral fat cats—but the film overall seems to be all over the place.
The Laundromat opens today at the Ritz East and will be available on Netflix October 18.