Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat is a Big Short that comes up short

Photo: Netflix

Heist comedies of honor among thieves, psych-ward thrillers that double as indictments of the medical industry, sex-worker dramas about the commodification of bodies and souls: To watch a Steven Soderbergh movie of any genre is to be 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 in seven months (the first, High Flying Bird, was all about the business 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, make that point while anachronistically wandering the hunting grounds of early man. Their Economics 101 lecture, delivered straight to the camera, is the foundation on which The Laundromat builds its whole screed against sanctioned avarice. 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.

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Oldman and Banderas are playing real people: the notorious Panama City law partners Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca. They’re the villains of this story, but also our tour guides through it. Who better to explain modern finance, after all, than those who most 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: 11.5 million documents were leaked to the press, revealing the personal finances of CEOs, politicians, athletes, actors, drug kingpins, even the late Stanley Kubrick. 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, these so-called Panama Papers 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.

Soderbergh, of course, has been saying as much for two decades. And in The Laundromat, he absorbs the bitter truths, unscrupulous schemes, and wild anecdotes contained within that giant data dump, then spits them back out in a wonkish blast of infotainment, equal parts essay and globe-hopping ensemble comedy. The director’s regular screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, adapted the film from a nonfiction book by Jake Bernstein, one of the journalists who helped make sense of the millions of documents dropped in the lap of a German newspaper. Yet The Laundromat isn’t framed around the urgent efforts to get this story to the people, à la The Post or Burns’ own upcoming The Report. The journalists barely factor into its episodic structure and sprawling cast of characters. Soderbergh instead emphasizes the content of the papers: “Based on true secrets,” as it tells us, the movie follows a bullet-pointed lesson plan, our fourth-wall-breaking hosts dropping by periodically to explain shell corporations or the difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance.

Photo: Netflix

In so much as there’s a central figure, it’s 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 20 passengers, many of them senior citizens. Ellen discovers, as the real parties involved did, that the liable Shoreline Cruises was operating under what turned out to be a fake insurance policy. And so, like Woodward and Bernstein in All The President’s Men, she follows the money—a paper trail that leads her, and the film, to the Caribbean, and into the shady world of offshore holdings. From here, The Laundromat breaks in multiple directions, attempting to convey the full scope of the Mossack Fonseca empire through vignettes. We get David Schwimmer, in a red-tinted chain restaurant, anxiously disclosing how the tour company got hoodwinked, and Jeffrey Wright, whose tropical-based scam catches up with him. Matthias Schoenaerts drops by for a deadly game of blackmail in China. And in the film’s most inspired detour, Nonso Anozie plays a father trying to negotiate his way out of hot water—an ingenious miniature farce at the center of this polemic.

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What 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. That makes The Laundromat one of Soderbergh’s most bracingly angry movies. But it’s far from his best. The film, crosscutting slickly through time and space, never accumulates any narrative or investigative momentum. Partially, that’s because there’s no especially compelling personality driving it; even with Streep bringing some quiet, bereaved gravitas to the role, Ellen is less a character than an affectionate symbol of middle-class misfortune—and that’s before she essentially recedes into the background of Burns’ patchwork plot. Conceptually, Soderbergh isn’t so much returning to the connect-the-dots procedural strategy of Contagion as operating in the “comically” didactic explainer mode of Adam McKay’s The Big Short, only with maybe an even larger and more complicated financial network to explain. The humor is nearly as glib; it hinges mostly on Banderas and a flamboyantly accented Oldman delivering their crash course in wrongdoing with a campy, you-can’t-stay-mad-at-us puckishness. Though he isn’t half the craftsman Soderbergh is, McKay has a better handle on how to wring laughs from outrage.

Perhaps The Laundromat just runs into the limits of trying to merge agitprop and fun. Soderbergh’s assemblage of Hollywood somebodies is the sugar to make the medicine go down; he’s hoping, like McKay, that disguising this dissertation as a stylish, star-studded good time will help its lessons stick. But the result is occasionally as tiresome as an economics professor more concerned with being liked than with teaching you anything. And maybe there’s a more specific problem in the tension between Soderbergh’s anti-capitalist sympathies and his ongoing love affair with mega-watt celebrities. The Laundromat at last pivots to “John Doe,” the whistleblower behind the Panama Papers leak, whose rationale for making the private info public was a moral imperative: a belief that the whole world needed to see what this still-anonymous insider saw in the numbers, the full scope of the con being pulled by the rich and powerful. Yet the film’s climactic call-to-action, its rabble-rousing appeal to the hoi polloi, rings a little false because the director has stuck it in the mouth of a white movie star in cross-racial drag—a misjudged bit of dual-role stunt casting that blunts the impact of the closing Ted Talk. There’s a lesson here, too, even for a filmmaker as savvy as Soderbergh: Optics matter—which is to say, it’s not just the message, but also who’s delivering it, that counts.

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