There came a point where Steven Soderbergh had announced an intention to retire from filmmaking yet it seemed all too clear that he couldn’t leave the medium. It was long-thought that his last theatrical feature film was going to be Side Effects, but he came back to the big screen with Logan Lucky four years later – which he soon followed with films that were shot entirely with the use of iPhones, Unsane and High Flying Bird. Knowing the sort of filmmaker that Soderbergh has established himself as over his prolific career, it’s only fitting that he made another film that takes down an entire system but even the results of what this could sound like turn out so much stranger than expected. As for whether or not the film is good, I’m still having trouble finding out the answer to that myself.
Based on the true story of the Panama Papers case, this dramatization stars Meryl Streep as Ellen Martin, a widower who was denied compensation following the death of her husband in a ferry accident. After the insurance companies dodge her own claims, what soon follows is her discovery of a paper trail that even brings us to see numerous stories of what’s going on with the people covering up the financial system. Framed through the narration of both Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) and Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman), The Laundromat, providing a step-by-step guide for the viewers for how they scammed so many people out of insurance money the way they did, The Laundromat isn’t any ordinary tale of fraud but an attempt at deconstructing the self-referential style of true story-based comedies that have been popularized by the films of Adam McKay, particularly The Big Short and Vice.
It was inevitable that when writing this, a comparison to the films of Adam McKay were set to come because as much as Soderbergh makes clear his interest in breaking down the standard set forth by Adam McKay’s approach to capturing such wild true stories on the screen, he seems to be too lost in himself with doing so. Yet the more he buys into that meta style he only becomes the exact style he is attempting to parody in The Laundromat, making his intent feel so much more unclear. That’s not to say certain moments in The Laundromat aren’t very funny, but it’s hard enough to tell what’s even going on, even when you have Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas screaming so much information in your faces every chance that they have. It soon turns into what was one of McKay’s worst tendencies, where everything seems to read more like jargon rather than move in a straightforward manner.
Beyond having so much information being dumped into your face every chance in which the film gets, it’s hard enough telling where the film is going too. As the film jumps from one story thread to another, as we examine the impact of Mossack and Fonseca’s money laundering from one place to the next, The Laundromat only becomes even less clear about its own subject too. Every now and then, you’ll still jump back to seeing Meryl Streep getting caught within all of this, but some viewers would start wondering whether or not her character is real when all the consequences seem so real too. Many moments also come by where the film is just straight up attempting to baffle the viewers, but by then you’d also start wondering about what was Soderbergh trying to do when he has a great story in his own hands too. Having Oldman and Banderas constantly scream doesn’t work nearly as well as he seems to be hoping, but if anything there’s something I do admire about Soderbergh trying to create a film that breaks down this exact style of filmmaking – but the fact it’s written by Scott Z. Burns of The Informant! helps to a degree, too.
It’s hard enough trying to comment about a film where so many baffling things happening all at once but one can only rely on a director like Steven Soderbergh to remain so fascinating a case to study for this exact reason. Does this film really do justice to the story of the Panama Papers? How much of this is all real, and how much of this isn’t? Whatever the answer to that question is, the only way in which a question of this sort can be answered is simply by watching the film for yourself and trying to make sense out of everything that he and Burns just dump into your face. But as a breakdown of this sort of true story-based film style, The Laundromat is never anything less than fascinating. Though when you have a case with Meryl Streep imitating a brownface performance or Gary Oldman randomly appearing in a sequence set in China as a taxi driver, how could a film like this not simply be baffling? It’s like Soderbergh is playing a joke on the audience, but how into it are you?
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Netflix.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, from Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite by Jake Bernstein
Produced by Scott Z. Burns, Lawrence Grey, Gregory Jacobs, Steven Soderbergh, Michael Sugar
Starring Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer, Sharon Stone
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Running Time: 95 minutes