2019, Movies

The Laundromat (2019, Steven Soderbergh)

This is a bizarre, episodic and extremely stagey attempt to make the Panama Papers scandal more accessible and therefore of greater concern to the average American. It is a giant mess and only sporadic laughs and an excellent cast keep – and the film’s noble intentions – keep me from panning it.


It sure feels as though the writers of this movie wanted to make a Panama Papers Big Short, albeit one that leaned a little bit more into theatricality and more out there narrative techniques. It actually reminds me a fair amount of Vice in how its determination to be weird and meta undercuts a good story and a great cast.

The biggest problem for this film is that there isn’t a lead actor the audience can go for. The two characters we meet first are the bad guys. And Meryl Streep’s character, who represents the average American, is just not in the film enough. The film is not just about the law firm at the heart of the scandal but also about the system that enabled it, so it would be better off as a docudrama or outright documentary. Or it would be better off focused on Ellen Martin as she tries to figure out why she isn’t receiving her insurance payout. Instead it tries to tell both of those stories, as well as two other stories (at least one of which might have made a pretty good thriller on its own). It’s scattershot – we don’t know who to care about and we don’t know if they’re ever going to pop back into the film.

The problem of focus is exacerbated by the aggressively strange style. The movie is meta from the outset, with the lawyers narrating the story from a clearly fantastical place. Sometimes this works, especially early on, but it becomes more and more strained as it goes on, in part because the film departs from their storytelling at times, to plunge us into stories that don’t even seem related until they are slowly revealed to be parts of the greater story. (Though I don’t know if they’re both based in fact.) Imagine reading a novel which suddenly includes multiple short stories. It might be really great if it’s done well, but if it’s done poorly it’s confusing and annoying.

The script gets stagier as it goes one, with some of the scenes near the end really feeling like they were written for the stage. And at this point the film leans even further into its metaness, when the whole thing is revealed to be a movie (shock! horror!). This includes perhaps the most absurd and bizarre moment, when it is revealed that an employee of the lawfirm is also Meryl Streep. We don’t know why this is significant, though. Is it a statement saying that only the average people being paid to enable these types of schemes can expose them? I guess that’s what they’re trying to say, but it’s lost in the showiness of the film focusing on reminding us the whole thing is a film, which we know because there are many famous people.

This is such a missed opportunity: a great director (usually), a great cast, an important scandal. A strict procedural would have worked, and maybe an absurdist dark comedy about the hijinks of two Panamanian lawyers would have worked. But trying to do both, while trying to make a relatively avant garde narrative film, does not.


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