Steven Soderbergh is a peculiar filmmaker. His fingerprints are unmistakable and unknowable simultaneously, for he bounds from genre to genre, studio to indie and back again with such regularity that he’s difficult to pin down. The only thing you can count on is that he’ll no doubt try new things and, unless he’s indulging in Ocean’s Eleven fun, attempt to push the boundaries of what we know as cinema. That all sounds like embellishment and it is, because Soderbergh is nothing if not a little bit pretentious. His newest film, The Laundromat, is a big swing aimed at uncovering the funny, morbid, and fucked-up nature of the scheming that went on behind the so-called Panama Papers scandal. He misses the mark by half an hour. It’s The Big Short if The Big Short was in a hurry to fill you in on the minutiae, or didn’t bother to impart to you the gravity of its subject matter.
The film is only ninety or so minutes long and for a topic as heady as financial harlots around the world, and the all-seeing, all-ignoring facilitators who allowed for them, well, the world is not enough. Ninety minutes is not enough for a story of interconnecting smaller stories, all of them serving a single function in detailing the high crimes of the rich and famous. There’s an insurance scam run by one man (Jeffrey Wright) that runs over an old woman (Meryl Streep) and others (David Schwimmer) in the wake of her husband’s death, and a double-dealing case of corporate malfeasance and murder involving one European businessman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a Chinese magnate, and law enforcement. There’s even a domestic extra-marital affair of one international titan of industry (Nonso Anozie) whose family squabbles make for an amusing detour. That’s the chief problem here though. The Laundromat is but a quick succession of busy nothings that end up amusing more than enlightening.
Soderbergh’s eye for digital photography is put to good use for the first time in some time, as he eschews the silly iPhone for real cameras and comes up full of color. For a talky film about money and terrible deeds, his film is beautiful to look at, with great depth of field and a series of vast settings to get lost in. From a Christmas-lit dive bar to a sun-kissed mansion, there’s plenty to look at while the powerful lout about their environs with nary a care in the world, including for their own children in one story. Escorting them and us through these environs are Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, narrators and partners in a Panama City firm representing the end of this shady, meandering rabbit hole of money-grubbing. They make a good couple of miscreants, sauntering from set to set in expensive suits, chit-chatting with us in thick-accented prose. As the German son of a former Nazi family who fled to Panama after the war, Oldman is both too much and just right for enlivening these confusing proceedings.
Soderbergh’s frothier instincts ensure The Laundromat is still entertaining, however, his other instincts lead him astray. His ambition is noteworthy yet ultimately not worthy of our time. He’s a filmmaker casting aside all doubt for any formal idea that pops into his head. The film is full of formal ideas and not much to them beyond sermonizing, a preaching to the choir regarding the world’s big foible. It’s also full of stunt casting that leads to nowhere except wastefulness, such as Sharon Stone and James Cromwell in one or two scenes, and Meryl Streep in a second role that crosses the line of tastefulness. I have no pearls to clutch and I wouldn’t touch them if I did, but Streep in brown-face? For what, I still don’t know. I do know he half-way makes up for it with Will Forte and Chris Parnell as Doomed Gringo #1 and Doomed Gringo #2. Nobody can say Steven Soderbergh doesn’t have a wicked sense of humor.