Heist comedies about honor among thieves, a psych-ward thriller that doubles as an indictment of the medical industry, a sex-worker drama about the capitalization of bodies and souls: Watching a Steven Soderbergh movie of any genre you’re reminded that if money isn’t the root of all evil, it might only be because it’s now the root of everything. The Laundromat, Soderbergh’s second film just this year (the first, High Flying Bird, was all about the business interworkings of basketball), goes as far as tracing society itself back to the invention of currency. In the opening scene, two tuxedoed movie stars, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas (later learned to be playing Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonesca), make that point while anachronistically wandering the hunting ground of early man. Their Economics 101 lecture, delivered straight to camera, is the foundation on which The Laundromat builds its whole screed against sanctioned extreme greed. But it’s also a kind of origin story of the modern world as Soderbergh sees it. From the moment we created money, he implies, life became inherently and inescapably transactional.
As said before Oldman and Banderas are playing real people: The notorious Panama City law partners Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonesca. They’re the villains of this story, but also our guides through it. Who better to explain modern finance than those who successfully exploited its rules? In 2015, the pair’s firm, one of the world’s largest providers of offshore accounts, suffered a historically huge data breach: a whistleblower leaked 11.5 million documents to the press, revealing the personal finances of CEOs, politicians, athletes, actors and drug kingpins. But what the leak really exposed was the full extent to which the wealthy preserve and compound their fortunes, finding loopholes legal and not to dodge paying their share. To many, the Panama Papers (as they leak documents were called) confirmed a truly distressing vision of the global economy as a giant shell game, rigged to benefit the few at the expense of the many.
It’s something that Soderbergh, of course, has been saying for the past two decades. And in The Laundromat, he absorbs the bitter truths, unruly schemes, and wild anecdotes contained within that giant data dump, then spits them back out in a wonky explosion of info, equal parts essay and globe-hopping ensemble comedy. Soderbergh teams up again with his regular screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, to follow a Big Short-like playbook of breaking down complicated financial concepts and completing them with fourth-wall breaks. The Laundromat also isn’t framed around the urgent efforts to get this story to the people. Soderbergh instead emphasizes the content of the papers: “Based on true secrets,” as it tells us, the movie follows a bullet-pointed lesson plan, of which is told by our fourth-wall-breaking hosts.
The film largely focuses on the fictional Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), whose husband dies in a very nonfictional tragedy: the Ethan Allen boating accident of 2005, in which a tour boat capsized and sank to the bottom of Lake George, drowning twenty passengers, many of which were senior citizens. Ellen discovers that the liable Shoreline Cruises were operating under what turned out to be a fake insurance policy. She soon follows a paper trail that leads her to the Caribbean and into the shady world of offshore holdings. From there, The Laundromat breaks in many different directions, attempting to convey the full scope Mossack and Fonseca’s empire through vignettes. We get David Schwimmer anxiously disclosing how the tour company got hoodwinked, and Jeffery Wright, whose tropical-based scam catches up with him. Matthias Schoenaerts stops by for a deadly game of blackmail in China. And the film’s most inspired detour, we see Nonso Anozie playing a father trying to negotiate his way out of hot water. But despite the film’s best efforts, none of the interlocking stories achieve any kind of dramatic traction or momentum, often ziging and zaging too frequently for us to really lock-in and care.
Yet what still emerges is a damning critique of institutional corruption — a portrait of how “the meek are screwed” by a system that rewards greed and sidesteps accountability. Making it one of, if not the, most bracingly angry movies by Soderbergh. But it’s far from his best. The film largely struggles with the aforementioned lacking momentum. Partially, that’s because there’s no especially compelling personality driving it; even with Streep bringing some quiet, widowed gravitas to the role, Ellen slowly becomes less a character than an affectionate symbol of middle-class misfortune — and that’s before she quickly recedes into the background of Burns’ patchwork plot. Conceptually, Soderbergh isn’t returning to any type of procedural strategy of his past, instead more of the comedically instructive mode of Adam McKay’s The Big Short, only with maybe an ever more larger and complicated network to breakdown. The humor is nearly as glib; it hinges mostly on Banderas and Oldman delivering their crash course in wrongdoing with a campy, you-can’t-stay-mad-at-us impishness. The thing is though, McKay seemingly has a much better handle on how to wring laughs from outrage.
Perhaps The Laundromat really just runs into the limits of its attempt to meld agitprop and fun. Soderbergh runs a tight ship through the whole production, and in particular he and his casting director Carmen Cuba fill a lot of roles that have only one or two scenes to make an impact. They use the likes of Sharon Stone, Cristina Alonzo, Robert Patrick among other familiar faces. But he largely takes his assemblage of Hollywood somebodies as sugar to make the medicine go down; he’s hoping, like McKay, that disguising this dissertation as a stylish, star-studded good time it will help its lessons stick. But the end result is occasionally as tiresome as an economics professor more concerned with being liked than with teaching you anything. When the film’s climactic call-to-action arrives, it does stumble a bit as there is an element of a white movie star in cross-racial drag (something this critic humbly saw coming). But giving up all of its artifice and handing the mic to Streep turns the words of the Panama Papers whistleblower into a galvanizing monologue about the nature of democracy. It’s a hard-hitting ending that nearly saves the dragging passages that came before it. But even with its head in exactly the right place, The Laundromat struggles to move that needle. Though ending with an electric guttural punch, The Laundromat collapses with its excess of ideas, ultimately undercutting the well-intended, justifiable outrage of the events depicted.