Writer-Director Steven Soderbergh has made a reputation for himself in Hollywood for producing big-budget Hollywood films that are always smarter than they appear. On paper, he would be the perfect man to bring forth the Panama Papers leak to the big screen. His resume, after all, is built on cons and heist films, and so shedding light on how the wealthy were getting away with their crimes, should have come second nature to him.
However, this proves too much for the acclaimed director who produces his weakest film in recent memory, making an Adam McKay wannabe feature, that is neither as entertaining or incisive as McKay’s work and flounders for too long without having anything to say.
To be fair, explaining how the one percent around the world were quietly using shell companies to garner more wealth without tax cuts, could seem like a boring subject to bring onscreen. But with a cast of Antonio Banderas, Meryl Streep, and Gary Oldman, the film shouldn’t have settled for mediocrity as comfortably as the Laundromat does.
While McKay has in recent years perfected (to the best of his abilities at least) making dry subject matters more approachable for the masses, his style never bordered on groan-inducing even if it was at times hokey.
Laundromat, however, is like a bad Adam McKay feature film. Featuring a similar style but not quite the subtlety of The Big Short director’s works, Laundromat hopes to make the tax evasion scandal more exciting to people through colorful narration that seems over the top at times and anecdotes that border on being cringy.
The film is also structured unusually, feeling more like a TV series with moving characters that add to the overall story the film is trying to tell without really being of much importance. Apart from Meryl Streep’s character Ellen Martin, who loses her husband in a ferry accident and gets into an insurance scam that leads her indirectly to the Bahamas and into the crosshairs of the firm in Panama managing the shell companies, fall in that category.
Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas play the two attorneys who are running their firm Mossack Fonseca, through which they set up 214,000 shell companies around the world. To keep things interesting, Soderbergh has the two also play the narrators, breaking the fourth wall and smugly explaining the story.
Their use feels a little irritating, given that the actors’ primary goal is to explain things to us in smugly and act for about ten minutes towards the end when they assume their roles. While Banderas is still bearable as the narrator (as Ramon Fonseca), Gary Oldman, as Jurgen Mossack and his co-narrator, is annoying to behold.
All this isn’t to say that the movie is unwatchable or a complete mess. The film does effectively manage to explain the events which lead to the leak and the powers the rich in the world can abuse to further their gain. It cannot be denied, however, that this is a low point for Soderbergh as he neglects a who’s who cast of A-Listers, as well as several outstanding supporting actors: Sharon Stone, David Schwimmer, and Jeffery Wright.
If Laundromat is trying to say something about the state of the wealthy in the world or the corrupt systems that assist them, it is too generic to mean anything. Scot Z. Burns’ screenplay lacks cohesion, but ultimately its Soderbergh who doesn’t know quite how to make this film click.
The lazy use of the fourth wall to fill us in on how everything unfolded would be fine if, for example, the film didn’t end with Meryl Streep, out of character, standing up and posing as the statue of liberty and talking about how there are still corrupt people in the world. The movie feels oddly patronizing at times, which is quite strange, given that there is nothing at all smart about it.