Steven Soderbergh’s latest is an aimless, flat tale despite a timely premise
A timey, topical film isn’t necessarily a good one, especially if it doesn’t know what to do with it. In THE LAUNDROMAT, Soderbergh tackles the Panama Papers expose’, adapting from Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist Jake Bernstein’s Secrecy World. The result is an uneven, unengaging film that fails to sustain interest and is bogged down by its own narrative structure.
Design as a hybrid of informercial-like segments, drama and comedy, the film focuses on an intricate web of greed and injustice and corruption. With every chapter, a new side to the story is introduced, with cameos aiming at sustaining the story’s appeal but with little impact.
Middle-class retiree Ellen Martin (an under-used Meryl Streep) is a loving wife and an everyday woman. When she goes on a ferry trip with her husband, a tragic incident shatters her life forever. Having been denied compensation, she decides to embark on a personal investigation into the chain of insurance companies inexplicably dodging her claim. What follows is a series of sketches – or rather skits – in which we are introduced to money launderers, organ traffickers and corrupt bureaucrats. Each has their own story, a mix of comedy and tragedy on its own, and each had a hand in a shaping a scandal that has stunned a nation.
Topical but aimless, THE LAUNDROMAT fails to connect its pieces together and falls flat due to a strange, off-putting framing device, in which billionaires Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) offer some sort of guide on how to become wealthy through corrupt, illegal means while walking the fine line between tax avoidance and tax evasion. Such framing, and rather than bring the story together, turns it into an SNL-like, over-acted and unconvincing series of skits which alienates the audience and prevents true investment in the work. It is not only that the framing device is working against the story, it’s also that the film never truly makes us care about any of its characters. As they appear and disappear from the screen, the film, surely unwillingly, turns into a long, unengaging informercial of tax evasion tactics with a footnote on how ‘important’ the topic is, something that didn’t need to be hammered in such odd fashion.
And while Soderbergh has assembled quite the cast, they all remain under-used and their accents are far more distracting than intended. Such flaws could have been overlooked, or lessened, if what was happening on screen was more interesting or coherent. But a convoluted narrative structure, thinly written characters and an inability to bring real insight makes THE LAUNDROMAT a repetitive, pedestrian effort.
Verdict: A disappointing effort from Steven Soderbergh who delivers a picture that lacks coherence and intrigue despite covering a crucial moment in modern US history.