Soderbergh’s dirty money satire doesn’t come out squeaky clean
While he may have started small and played a key role in kickstarting the indie film revolution in the late 80s, Steven Soderbergh is a director that’s always had his eye on the bigger picture. From tackling dirty corporations in Erin Brockovich and the government’s war on drugs in Traffic, to digging into the pharmaceutical industry in Side Effects and basketball politics in High Flying Bird, Soderbergh continues to be fascinated by the shadier aspects of large institutions.
And he’s at it again in his new Netflix feature, The Laundromat, this time putting the Panama Papers exposé under the spotlight and chasing the one thing that connects all of his ‘investigative’ dramas: money. Moolah. Credit. Or whatever you call it nowadays. Like 2015’s The Big Short, this is Soderbergh attempting to melt down the complexities of big banking for us, the meek (as referred to in the film). And just like Adam McKay’s film, it somewhat misses the irony of gathering together a prime collection of super-rich actors (and let’s not forget the likes of Emma Watson, Jackie Chan, Stanley Kubrick and Pedro Almodóvar were named in the scandal) to show us how unfairly the game is rigged in favour of those with enough money and know how.
What begins as a seemingly simple tale eventually waits until the last act to dump most of its information, having taken an overly complex route to get there. It starts with the lawyers at the centre of the Panama Papers scandal, Fonseca and Mossack (Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman respectively), who intermittently guide us through the complicated layers of protection placed in front of their wealthy clients, with tongue firmly in cheek. They’re not the bad guys, they say, they’re just using the law to make sure their clients are not bogged down by unnecessary taxes. After all, we’d all avoid paying for them if we could, right?
The story of Meryl Streep’s Ellen Martin at first seems to be the main focus, following her trying to get over the death of her husband in a boating accident and the confusion surrounding the insurance company who fail to pay out. Just when we’ve settled into a potential cat and mouse chase between Ellen and the two lawyers, Soderbergh diverts into not one, not two, but three other short stories that are connected to the activities of the shady law firm.
Soderbergh appears to be having fun throwing graphics up onto the screen, returning back to Banderas and Oldman (whose faux-German accent strays into Herzog-esque territory) winking at the camera, dressing up Streep as a wide-hipped Latina woman (a dubious choice at best that can be spotted a mile off), splitting the film into chapters (which act as the explanation of ‘secrets’) and generally having a ball with his super-duper cast. The problem is all momentum is lost amidst the constant diversions, and a film that is intended to dumb down financial speak and throw shade at the excesses of the mega-rich ties itself in knots due to its own lavish excesses.
As is the nature with films such as this, The Laundromat cannot avoid the inherent smugness that comes with trying to tap into the anger felt towards those who abuse the privileges afforded to them by money. Simple-speaking it with a nudge and a wink doesn’t cover up our knowledge that those explaining it to us aren’t exactly working on the same level. Perhaps a lesser known cast, or a more focussed, personalised story might resonate, but in this glamourous, knotty form the players involved feel more distant than ever.
Performance wise, there’s little fault to be found with the cast, who in addition to the aforementioned names includes the likes of David Schwimmer, Jeffrey Wright, Matthias Schoenaerts, James Cromwell, Nonso Anozie, Sharon Stone and a host of other side players. While it has some issues, writer Scott Z. Burns’ adaptation of Jake Bernstein’s book Secrecy World doesn’t seem to be the real problem either. Which means it’s hard not to point the finger at Soderbergh for the ill-fitting tone and convoluted narrative. He’s usually at his best when he keeps it simple, and in truth, if he wants to connect with his audience, he should have a little more faith in their intelligence next time.
The Laundromat opens in select UK cinemas on September 27, before hitting Netflix on October 18.
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