Relentless innovator Steven Soderbergh drops the iPhone and returns to the RED for his latest Netflix-produced outing.
After this year’s unsung High Flying Bird, relentless innovator Steven Soderbergh drops the iPhone and returns to the RED for his latest Netflix-produced outing, the experimental comedy The Laundromat. Detractors see the film as the cinematic equivalent of a Vox explainer a la Adam McKay’s The Big Short, but Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns outfox that Oscar-winner by running light and lean, ditching McKay’s borderline pretentious derision for a laissez-faire approach to the stuffy docudrama.
In telling the ridiculous and tragic story of the Panama Papers, Soderbergh and Burns decided against the well-worn format of following the intrepid journalists who meticulously researched and cracked this story, choosing instead to leave newsroom reporting and beating the pavement out of the story entirely. Instead, the primary stewards of this narrative’s considerable exposition dumps comes from two of the scandal’s key perpetrators, Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), who co-founded the law firm at the center of an elaborate, international web of fraud and tax evasion.
Mossack and Fonseca speak directly to the camera, often in cartoonish and elaborate one-take sequences, or providing Looney Toonsian voice-over narration to infographics, outlining the nitty-gritty details of how the men exploited the law to save rich people money through an Ouroboros of shell corporations. In between their comical mugging, Soderbergh lenses slice of life stories, each tethered to the larger network of graft.
The core subplot follows Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), a woman who experiences a great loss, both of a loved one and an insurance settlement made negligible by Mossack Fonseca’s meddling. This shows the casualties of this corrupt system, while another thread, following the soap operatic machinations of an affluent family on the precipice of adultery related disaster, functions as a dramatic extrapolation of the give and take inherent to that same system. A tale set in China even showcases the visual flair of Soderbergh’s James Bond influences, not seen since 2011’s Gina Carano-starring actioner Haywire.
Through each story, the constants are superb performances, sharp writing, and Soderbergh’s trademark visual versatility, his specific strength for chameleonic direction. At his best, Soderbergh is an egoless dramatist, willing to abandon anything resembling a signature to become whatever kind of storyteller any given narrative requires of him. While his virtuosic camera moves and smart composition are admirable, he never seems to be currying audience favor or plaudits. That absence of conceit feels particularly obvious when a character further shatters the fourth wall, illustrating the ubiquity of convenient LLCs by outing Soderbergh himself and collaborator Burns for owning some themselves.
Where the film falters is in its closing moments, where Soderbergh’s metatextual convention flouting veers too far, the story devolving into something resembling a political ad, an NBC “The More You Know” interstitial so obvious as to be a little insulting. The motivation behind this shift is laudable, sure, but it seems completely at odds with the rest of the film’s fearless post-mortem of a scandal so massive and yet so devoid of a satisfying dramatic conclusion.
This is, at its core, a story about the bad guys getting away. Ending the film by imploring the viewer to go try to catch them feels like bad form.