Steven Soderbergh's 'The Laundromat' Offers More Spin Than Substance | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Steven Soderbergh's 'The Laundromat' Offers More Spin Than Substance


Published October 23, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.

PARTNERS IN CRIME Oldman and Banderas play owners of a law firm that helps the wealthy avoid shelling out for taxes.
  • PARTNERS IN CRIME Oldman and Banderas play owners of a law firm that helps the wealthy avoid shelling out for taxes.

Steven Soderbergh has made some of the most seminal, innovative and masterful films of the past 30 years. This isn't one of them. Rarely in that time has the artist who gave us Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), Erin Brockovich (2000) and Contagion (2011) given us as lightweight and pandering a creation.

The Laundromat is the filmmaker's latest collaboration with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, with whom he also made 2009's The Informant!. At first glance, the new work comes off as a companion piece. Both are based on real-life financial scandals, both are about greed and deception, and both involve a whistleblower. On closer examination, however, a troubling distinction emerges. Both Soderbergh and Burns give the impression that the person with whom they wish they were really collaborating was Adam McKay.

This is a movie that desperately wants to be The Big Short, McKay's rollicking breakdown of the 2008 economic collapse. Its subject is the collapse of a different economic system: the shadow labyrinth of offshore shell companies used by the rich and powerful to hide wealth and avoid taxes.

At least, the labyrinth created by one company. Based on Jake Bernstein's book Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite, The Laundromat uses the Panama papers as a springboard for a meandering diatribe against the evils of fiscal funny business. A better title might've been Duh.

The 2016 data dump, the largest ever at the time, consisted of more than 11 million leaked documents. Suddenly unsealed were the names of the world leaders, powerful business figures, politicians and celebrities behind 200,000-plus offshore entities. Many disappeared from public life. Charges were brought against others. All were clients of a single shady Panama-based legal firm named Mossack Fonseca.

Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas host the proceedings in the roles of Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, respectively. The two wear fancy suits and address the camera à la Ryan Gosling's Big Short character, Jared Vennett. Among the significant differences from that film: Where Vennett translated byzantine financial practices into language a layman could understand, Soderbergh's smarmy masters of ceremonies offer protracted pontifications on matters that the average viewer is either capable of grasping without assistance (shell companies aren't rocket science) or doesn't need to grasp to get the movie's point.

The opening, for example, is devoted to the origin story of legal tender. One hardly needs to know why money was invented to appreciate how the wealthy of the world have bent the system to their advantage. The rest of the movie is equally gratuitous and scattershot, composed of vignettes concerning everything from an African expatriate having an affair with his daughter's best friend to a Chinese woman who murders a Brit banker pressuring her to invest in one of his scams.

The cast is an embarrassment of riches, with the likes of Sharon Stone, David Schwimmer, Chris Parnell, Will Forte and James Cromwell making blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances. That only underscores the production's random, rambling vibe.

Most unconscionably squandered is Meryl Streep, who plays multiple parts. The first is a widow whose efforts to collect an insurance settlement are stymied by Mossack Fonseca shenanigans. The second is an even more egregious waste of talent and a schlocky narrative cheat.

On the one hand, Soderbergh's latest rages against all the right machines. On the other, his approach here is off-puttingly glib, self-satisfied and not rollicking. As a result, artistically, The Laundromat proves pretty much a wash.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Laundromat"

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