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Film Review: The Laundromat

The Laundromat (2019; Directed by Steven Soderbergh)

The Laundromat is the kind of movie that leaves you straining to recall from the mistiest corner of your memory why you thought its creator was a great filmmaker. Because Steven Soderbergh was (is?) a great filmmaker, right? Traffic swept the Oscars. Out of Sight made George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez superstars, or at least contributed mightily to that process. The Ocean’s trilogy is pretty much as good as smart but superficial mainstream entertainment filmmaking gets. Heck, a lot of film critics will even go to ground for that male stripper froth Magic Mike (although its sequel seems to be the preferred option and Soderbergh didn’t direct it). Even in the collaborative film medium and the top-down realm of corporate Hollywood, Soderbergh retains the patina of the auteur, even recently serving as his own cinematographer and editor (under pseudonyms).

Given his resume, there’s little to no reason that Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat should be as mediocre as it is. The material and the anticipated approach to it plays to his strengths: The Laundromat is about a Panama-based law firm that served as a legal clearinghouse for almost countless illegal practices by the global super-rich elite: shell companies, offshore holdings, tax evasion, bribery, insurance fraud, real estate speculation, government corruption and graft, even drug trafficking. The scriptual conceit is that a grieving widow and grandmother (Meryl Steep) who was doubly screwed over in a personally painful manner by entities tied to the firm, Mossack Fonseca, begins investigating their practices and eventually helps to take them down after the illegality was scandalously revealed to the public in the so-called Panama Papers.

Sounds good, right? And right up Soderbergh’s alley, too, fine fodder for a breezy Ocean’s-style heist-comedy anchored by the paramount political issues of our neo-Gilded Age: widening socioeconomic inequality and shrinking accountability for the powerful who benefit from it. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of movie The Laundromat is. Scott Z. Burns’ perspective-shifting screenplay sidelines the emotional core plot thread of Streep’s questing Ellen Martin and greatly indulges the simultaneously candid and self-justifying Greek chorus (Panamanian chorus?) of the crooked lawyers Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), who detail the functioning of tax avoidance and other elements of the global financial shell game in meta, fourth-wall-breaking addresses directly to the camera (they even mention that Soderbergh himself has 10 shell companies in his name) while walking through exclusive clubs and across tropical beaches.

Streep herself closes the film with a meta, didactic counter-monologue about the necessity of resisting and changing the system that allows the rich to continuously use and abuse the less-rich for their own gain (the biblical phrase “the meek shall inherit the earth” is called out for its contemporary irony on numerous occasions). She strips off the layers of her actorly disguise on the sets that Mossack and Fonseca moved through earlier, revealing the dishonest artifice of their rhetoric and practices (and those of the film as well, if you think about it). It’s a tad on the nose, but the point is forceful and not undeniable.

Sadly, The Laundromat expends (wastes, really) considerable running time in its middle and late sections on illustrative vignettes with only very tangential connections to Ellen’s story or Mossack Fonseca’s work. Nested mini-narratives about bribery covering up the internal sexual dramas of a wealthy African-descended family in Los Angeles and corruption and murder linked to the Chinese government at its highest levels intend to diversify the critique of financial wrongdoing, but they only serve to dull the sharpness of the film’s blade of critique. It feels for all the world like a movie patched together from the busy schedules of its all-star cast, which besides Streep, Oldman, and Banderas also includes Jeffrey Wright as a Caribbean insurance huckster with a double life, David Schwimmer and Robert Patrick as tour-boat operators caught up in tragedy and fraud, and Sharon Stone as a Vegas real estate agent.

The Laundromat is skillfully constructed by Soderbergh, who has always been a deft hand who seeks out technical challenges in filmmaking and innovative solutions to them. It’s not totally bad, but mostly so, especially as its attempts at a lighter comedic tone clash with its heavier beats of personal anguish and its direct digressions into political and economic instruction. Soderbergh does not have the morbidly cynical edge of an Adam McKay as displayed in his film The Big Short or in the prestige television entry Succession, which he exec-produced, both far better detailings and sharper-slicing satirical critiques of the moral degradation at the soul of American (and global) capitalism.

Certainly, a good Hollywood liberal like Soberbergh thinks that what Mossack Fonseca and other companies like them did was wrong, and he and Burns have their actors clearly lay out why it is. But message films must not merely provide the message, they must persuade their audience of its truth, must convince them of the righteousness of the cause on levels beyond the abstractly moral and intellectual. The Laundromat is scattered and unfocused and frankly not very entertaining, and thus functions as polemic without persuasion. Whatever else Steven Soderbergh has done, he misses the mark here. Too bad.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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