‘For Someone to Win, Someone Has to Lose’ – The Laundromat (Film Review)

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So, Steven Soderburgh’s retirement seems to be going well, hey!? Since Soderburgh came out of retirement in 2016 with Logan Lucky, the filmmaker has clearly demonstrated that he’s having a lot of fun playing with different forms and formats, with films shot on iPhones to a partnership with Netflix. That latter relationship is what has brought us his take on the case of the Panama Papers, a large document leak in 2015 that revealed a number of financial and attorney-client info for thousands of off-shore accounts, most of which were of questionable legal and moral standing. 

For his take, Soderburgh is clearly looking to the playbook set down by The Big Short in detailing a situation that’s seeped in financial jargon with the use of an all-star cast and direct address to camera, dishing out the weight of the material in as breezy a fashion as possible. Unfortunately for Soderburgh, the whole affair comes across as far too self-satisfied and quite jumbled mess, leading one to come out of the experience even more confused about the situation than you were going in. 

Soderburgh and his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, choose to deliver their tale of the Panama Papers through a series of interlocking vignettes, connected by a running commentary from the two partners who run the one Panama City law firm that all the shady dealings throughout the film run through (played by a suave Antonio Banderas, and an annoyingly hammy Gary Oldham). The main drive involves Meryl Streep’s Ellen, your normal sweet Grandmother who begins to investigate a phony insurance company following a tragedy, leading her to touch upon a wider more warped world than she had initially anticipated. 

It is in this thread following the poor put-upon Ellen that the film is most successful at demonstrating the more microscopic effect that the dealings detailed in the papers did have on normal everyday people. Streep is her dependably empathetic self, and her diving down into the rabbit hole of this financial scam does more to detail the wider-reaching effects of the papers than the rest of the sprawling film can hope to achieve. 

Rather than stay with Ellen, Soderburgh and Burns take us through a menagerie of different stories focusing on people both implicitly and explicitly involved in the dealings of off-shore accounts. It allows them to cast the film with a wide net, stretching across the globe and showing just how many different sectors of business had people involved in off-shore tax schemes. But what it gains in scope it loses in relatability, and as that net grows wider, the murkier the picture becomes and the more confounded you are by all the threads. Couple that with a very smug sense that the film is ‘sticking it to the man’ with an almost-theatre based approach to its stylings in the final third, The Laundromat is more likely to leave your head spinning in confusion than it is in a frenzied outrage about the selfish nature and conspiracies of the super-rich. 

The fact that you’re not left in a state of outrage is quite a failing of a film that should inspire just that. The Big Short, while equally self-satisfied, at least managed to drive home its point with an approach that knew when to take things seriously and allow the weight of the situation to drive itself home. The Laundromat plays things too large when they should go small, too playful when they should be sombre, and makes some very questionable stylistic decisions along the way. It feels like Soderburgh has blown up a balloon and has let go before he has had a chance to tie it off, leading him to run around the room frantically as that balloon zips across the room, with no real sense of direction. It’s different and may work for some, but ultimately The Laundromat drops the ball as a piece of cinema that strives to make a complicated situation feel tangible, devastating and perhaps most importantly, human. 

Dir: Steven Soderburgh

Scr: Scott Z. Burns 

Cast: Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas, Gary Oldman, Jeffrey Wright, David Schwimmer, Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick and Matthias Schoenaerts

Prd: Scott Z. Burns, Lawrence Grey, Gregory Jacobs, Steven Soderburgh and Michael Sugar

DOP: Peter Andrews 

Music: David Holmes

Country: United States

Year: 2019

Runtime: 95 minutes

The Laundromat is in select cinemas now and on Netflix from 18th October. 

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