Steven Soderbergh explores the true-life, largely reported Panama Papers scandal with his second feature released this year, “The Laundromat”, though with a first-rate cast, the end results are very dull and never cohesive.
Taking the ensemble cast and globe trotting approach as he did with “Traffic”, and by borrowing the tone and structure of something like Adam McKay’s “The Big Short”, which explored the financial crises of 2007-2008, Soderbergh does the same here. By implementing a few clever stylistic devices, stylized set-pieces, the film certainly impresses on a technical level, yet fails to deliver on a narrative and script level, which was the same fate his previous Netflix released feature “High Flying Bird” held.
“The Laundromat” ends up becoming a dizzying cluster of stylistic devices and visual tricks, that ultimately feels incoherent and convoluted as it derails into a preachy political satire. The film focuses on the ultra wealthy elite of Ramon Foncesca (Antonio Banderas) and Jurgen Mossack (Gary Oldman in a German accent), they are also the films narrators. They run the Panamanian law firm Mossack Foncessa and Co., which deal with many high-end clients that include Wall Street executives, arms dealers, and even Margaret Thatcher’s son. Eventually an anonymous whistle blower in the company, known as “John Doe” leaked the company’s unethical practices that ended up thwarting the company and led to a global scandal.
Adapted from Jake Bernstein’s non-fiction book “Secrecy World”, “The Laundromat” comes off as satirical farce, in which the story finally kicks off once we are introduced to Meryl Streep’s character Ellen Martin and her husband (James Cromwell) as they are enjoying the later years of their marriage, by living a complimentary life of leisure and earned tranquility on a tour boat, things all change once Ellen husband’s dies from a drowning, along with 12 other passengers from a tidal wave. This leads Ellen down her own investigation to how this negligence occurred.
She discovers that boat company can no longer get their insurance claimed paid out, thanks to a scheming wormhole, Matthew Quirk (David Swimmer) appears and explains he switched the insurance policy to something far less costly to a small businessman, Captain of the boat (Robert Patrick), who was the owner of the tour boat, that is now owned a shadow company operated by Jeffrey Wright out of tiny Caribbean and tax-free Nevis. In which Wright has two families, one in Florida, and the other in Navis. This is the pattern of the film, a lot of unnecessary subplots and characters that never move the story forward as many are left abandoned, and not in a fascinating way.
However maybe that is the intention by Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns are aiming for. That the schemes and looting that occurred are impossible and too muddled to explain in detail. The less logical it is, the better the 1% assets will be protected. Just like Soderbergh’s ensemble masterpiece, everything ends up being connected, that all points to Fonseca’s unethical business dealings. Despite all these detours that are hard to catch up will leave you feeling frustrated overall. The main story continues to gas out and stall with many interludes and a labyrinth of subplots that appear to be revealing something massive, yet end up being just a nothing burger as they never appear again, as Soderbergh and Burns linger over what they find fascinating.
Its a groggy and scattershot experience by design, that is certainly a difficult challenge for Soderbergh and Burns to take such important and intransigent material that was probably better suited for an engrossing documentary than a Netflix home viewing experience. Nevertheless “The Laundromat” ends with an astonishing tracking shot, yet the pre-credit finale comes off so preachy and unrestrained that it will leave you laughing in just how heavy-handed it is as the a character from the film (who I’m not spoiling) begins reading the riot act. “Everybody’s hands are dirty, and its time we hold folks accountable and clean up our act” once the fourth wall is broken and Soderbergh’s new film comes off like a mouthpiece for a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren campaign video than something artful or gripping. All around the film feels like a lecture, and even worse it comes across more like an assignment, and hasn’t that always been Soderbergh’s forte? Just this one isn’t as cerebral or as sophisticated as something like “The Girlfriend Experience”, which also had a lot on its mind about wealth and economics.