I wouldn’t say Steven Soderbergh is one of my favorite filmmakers of today, but I can’t name a lot of filmmakers who are quite as versatile and willing to experiment as Soderbergh is. I think Soderbergh’s gift has always been his ability to ground his films in some sort of reality, and in turn connect seemingly unconnected events into a cohesive narrative or statement. Soderbergh’s talent has always been process; films like Out of Sight or the Ocean’s trilogy don’t succeed just because of their stories, but because they’re telling said stories in the most interesting way possible.
It’s due to my utter respect for the way Soderbergh revolutionized the industry that I find it so baffling that he just directed one of the absolute worst films of the year. The Laundromat isn’t just lazy and uninspired in its creation, but seemingly an antithesis to what Soderbergh is good at. Instead of seeing things play out with any sort of nuance, the film’s events are told to the audience plain faced and directly, and the loose storylines are strung together in a way that feels less like the tapestry of a great painter and more like a frantic connect-the-dots from an amateur.
The film is centered on the real Panama Papers schedule, where an off-shore law firm was found to be responsible for countless scandals and controversies involving real life elite figures. This scandal is seen through the eyes of a widowed woman (Meryl Streep) who investigates the two lawyers at the center (Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman)- at least that’s what it starts off as. Ultimately, Soderbergh seems to enjoy having Banderas and Oldman speak directly to the audience and explain to them how precisely they came to be responsible for all the world’s problems more than focusing on how they may have impacted the world.
Oldman and Banderas at least seem to be having fun chewing the scenery, and this over-the-top fourth wall breaking would be very enjoyable if it wasn’t the only trick the film had up its sleeve. The fourth wall breaking isn’t in service of the narrative, but intended to be the narrative itself; Streep and her wide ranging cast of co-stars (which includes everyone from Robert Patrick and David Schwimmer to Sharon Stone and Jeffrey Wright) are just small examples made to populate the stories that Oldman and Banderas tell, and no character ends up inspiring any sort of empathy.
Again, it would be another thing if Banderas and Oldman were saddled by dialogue that was particularly cunning or caustic, but they aren’t; it’s a mostly dull state of affairs as they aimlessly admit to every horrible deed with no sense of regret, and none of these ideas are ever visualized. The closest thing the film gets to telling its message in an interesting way is an opening gag in which the pair explains the process of financial exchanges by relating it to cavemen, but it’s the type of broad gag that would work better as a rough thesis, and not the most daring thing in the entire film.
The various storylines, which include Streep’s apparently instant ability to become a private investigator, aren’t shot particularly interesting, and are generally confined to small, flat environments shot with no regard for visual flare. Each actor seems to be confused on whether this is suppose to be straight laced satire of a sincere warning, and many of the storylines are so utterly forgettable that they’re challenging to even criticize. The issue is that some stories, such as Jeffrey Wright’s role as a dubious lawyer who leads a double life, just seem to be on the cusp of something interesting when the film whisks itself away to cover something else.
At 95 minutes, the film is way too short to offer a comprehensive view of these corruption issue, and only has time to touch on each situation with minimal depth. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, a brilliant artist who also wrote and directed this year’s The Report, seems like he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to off-shore accounting, but the dialogue he saddles the actors with seem to be a better fit for a documentary than a film that actually cares about people. Streep has the most convincing story arc of any character in the film, but any room for a strong emotional connection with her goes out the door when she inexplicably disappears from the second half of the film.
I was genuinely shocked at how the film concluded, and while I won’t spoil it for the curious, it’s the type of stinger that’s so transparently pandering and uncreative in its attempts to be sincere that it comes off as abrasive, and even insulting to the audience’s intelligence. It’s a fourth wall break of sorts that could have come off as clever and rewarding had the film actually had any narrative coherence, but here it comes off as yet another lecture.
I’m not sure how many talented people got in a room and made something like The Laundromat; Soderbergh has made bad movies before, but the majority are intersting and speak to his willingness to try something new- think of how The Good German wasn’t quite the Casablanca tribute it thought it was, or how Ocean’s Twelve didn’t find the same irreverence that Ocean’s Eleven did. Those were films that collapsed under their own ambitions, but I can’t see The Laundromat being a film that anyone could say they were passionate about. It’s not a spectacular art-house miss, nor is it “so bad that it’s good;” The Laundromat is just a colossal failure from a guy who usually gets things right. Grade: D+