TIFF 2019: ‘The Laundromat’ is a Rare Misstep for Steven Soderbergh, a Film With Meta Experiments More Condescending Than Empowering
Earlier this year, Steven Soderbergh released one of my favorite films of 2019 so far, High Flying Bird, and of that film I wrote in my review:
Soderbergh (who was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards for both movies, and won for Traffic) has this streak of rebellious activism that he nurtured in those films, this idea that sometimes one person can’t bring down the whole system but they sure as hell should try anyway, and that’s the mentality that he brings to High Flying Bird.
That “rebellious activism” comes out to play again in The Laundromat, but this latest star-heavy ensemble from the director is a rare misfire, a film that plays with breaking down the fourth wall and self-aware performance but also ends with a scene so thoroughly condescending that I was appalled. Not inspired, but irritated. The whole thing plays less like a movie and more like an informational newspaper graphic coupled with Meryl Streep’s performance of Mary Louise Wright from the second season of Big Little Lies, and yes, in this context, I mean those things as insults. There’s no narrative flow here, no propulsive movement, no real connection to anything happening onscreen.
I started my experience at the Toronto International Film Festival this year with the whistleblower drama The Report, about the investigation into the CIA’s use of torture in the War on Terror, and ended my final day in Toronto with The Laundromat, which focuses on the leak of the Panama Papers and the reveal of omnipresent insurance fraud and financial corruption around the world. Did you remember either of those things? Do you think these whistleblower dramas will make a difference in our current reality? What is their purpose in this specific time and specific place, and what do they galvanize us as everyday people to do? Those are the questions I considered while watching the Keira Knightley vehicle Official Secrets before TIFF, and something I kept pondering while watching both The Report and The Laundromat, too. (I’ll review The Report separately to give that drama from Scott Z. Burns, who is also the screenwriter of The Laundromat, its own due diligence.) And again, I’m not sure that what The Laundromat wants us to do after the film wraps is what you’ll actually be compelled to do, or if it even matters at all.
The Laundromat begins with one narrative vehicle and then continues adding other storylines into it; at a certain point, you’ll end up watching a film within a film within a film. Is that complexity purposeful, for Soderbergh to show us how labyrinthine these financial institutions were? The complex way that money moves through various hands before making some people rich and billions more not? Perhaps, but that doesn’t give the movie the rhythm it requires to hold our interest. Instead, it actively undermines it.
The focus begins with lawyers Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas, quite smooth) and Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman, not quite nailing a German accent), two narrators who begin the film telling us about the “secret life of money.” They hand wads of money to Neanderthals, who try to eat it and then set it on fire. They walk into an exclusive, neon-lit nightclub, where attractive women hang all over them. As they tell us about the connections between money and credit, and how the latter stands in for “something intangible” (bringing to mind Nan Pierce’s comments about money vs. integrity during the second season of HBO’s Succession), we realize that Soderbergh is actually going to share with us these “secrets,” chopping the film into five segments.
Are these enlightening? Not really. But apparently the keys to being an uber-rich asshole who dabbles in offshore accounts and fraud include lessons like “the meek are screwed” and “it’s just shells” and “bribery 101.” Each one of those “lessons” takes us into another subplot, with that of Ellen Martin (Streep) being the primary through-line.
Ellen’s story is one of shocking, abrupt tragedy, and her anger over what has happened to her family leads her to investigate the law firm run by Fonseca and Mossack. Through them, the story introduces other subplots that serve as examples of the “secrets,” including Matthias Schoenaerts as a man trying to force a wealthy Chinese family into laundering money, Jeffrey Wright as the strawman president of a financial company in the West Indies, and an unnecessarily lengthy jaunt featuring Nonso Anozie as a man paying off a variety of women to keep his secrets.
None of these storylines aside from Ellen’s is particularly compelling, but Soderbergh so rigidly sticks to this “we must explain each secret” structure that there are great gaps in the story when she isn’t onscreen. That’s a little bit of a blessing because Streep seems on autopilot. The film is only 96 minutes but feels interminably longer thanks to that choppiness. Soderbergh tries to be breezy with his presentations of Fonseca and Mossack, and he uses them as a way to break the fourth wall between us and the film—showing them on soundstages, having them operate as narrators speaking directly to us while also staying in character—but that experimental approach reads as increasingly patronizing.
And that final scene. I cannot get over it, but I also don’t want to spoil it. Let me just say that the last few moments of The Laundromat are infuriating for how they sidestep the fact that there are colossal power structures that are keeping people disenfranchised and oppressed, and sometimes an earnest plea for political engagement from wealthy celebrities just isn’t enough to attack high-level institutions like those named in the Panama Papers. Remove the end of The Laundromat and the movie would have been a well-meaning, informative but creatively disjointed Soderbergh effort. Your read on the last 5 or so minutes, though, might determine your feelings on the movie overall—and whether your desire for political activism comes from a film subtly, creatively showing you or clunkily, explicitly dictating to you how to act.
The Laundromat was a special presentation film this year at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released in select U.S. theaters on Sept. 27 and launch on Netflix on Oct. 18.
Image sources (in order of posting): TIFF, TIFF