2019 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: You know those times doing your laundry when you over-stuff the washer—against all warnings and your own good judgment—and the whole thing becomes “unbalanced”? So bad that the machine starts shaking violently, unstable and lopsided until the rinse cycle fails and you are left with soppy, soggy clothes in a pile of entangled mush? And you know that feeling of guilt, the worst part of it all, that you get because you knew you should not have put in that extra towel, that extra sheet, but you just—could—not—help—yourself? This admittedly crude but ultimately precise analogy describes Stephen Soderbergh’s new film, “The Laundromat.” Though the movie is purportedly about a woman on a quest for justice leading her into the thicket of the Panama Papers scandal, it really is not. It starts with cavemen and finishes in the (vision of hope for the) future. It is about insurance scams, tax evasions, greedy lawyers, politicians, and God. You get the idea—the end result is such an unrecognizable, overstuffed amalgam of nothing, that the film bloats to its bursting point, a well-meaning civics lesson gone awry.
The film opens with a tumbleweed in the prehistoric past as hapless cavemen try to light a fire and Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman show up, tuxedo-clad, to kick-start history with their jewel-encrusted zippo lighter and dirty martinis. Later, you will find out that the acting legends are playing Ramon Fonseca and Jurgen Mossack, former law partners at a firm in Panama that helped set up shell corporations for tax avoidance and evasion schemes. Banderas and Oldman break the fourth wall from the get go to explain to the viewer—who Scott Z. Burns, the screenwriter, and Soderbergh, clearly do not think much of—why “money” exists and how it was created. And they promise to divide their preaching into easily digestible “lessons” each introduced with goofy graphics and a catchphrase, to make you, that dopey audience member, remember.
The first lesson is that “the meek are screwed,” as in, the Beatitude of Christ turned on its head. Fonseca learned that lesson early in life after the priest that preached it to him was killed and his vision of saving the world did not materialize because it “was hard.” And you are about to learn it too when you meet Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) and hear of her sad and unfair story. One day, while cruising on Lake George in Upstate New York, her husband (James Cromwell) is killed after the riverboat capsizes. Twenty other people, in fact, are left dead, and the boat company run by Matthew Quirk (David Schwimmer) has all intentions to do the right thing and pay up—that is, until he realizes that he was sold a fraudulent insurance company purportedly issued through a series of shell companies in the Caribbean and leading you through and to Panama.
The injustice is that Ellen should but is not getting paid. That right there, though, reveals volumes about what Burns (who also wrote the stupendous script for The Report this year) and Soderbergh think about where they have their audience. Tort victim compensation, a bedrock principle of American economic and legal structures, is typically taken for granted by liberals and viewed upon with suspicions by others. That Burns never bothers to try to persuade the audience that they should care about Ellen is the most honest presage of what is to come—echo chamber lines that will not convince most audiences, even those that Burns erroneously calculated he had in the bag. It bears stating here that one’s politics really has nothing to do with it. The things that “The Laundromat” eventually decries as abhorrent are abhorrent. But, truisms do not make for compelling drama, not when the film is set up “The Big Short” style as a thoughtful exercise of outrage and of unmasked secrets. It has to be convincing and, therefore, straightforward.
But it is not. After we find out that Quick has been duped, we think that perhaps this film is going to be about the pernicious insurance industry and how it leaves everyone in the lam. Soon, though, we move to the second lesson, “It’s Just Shells” (perhaps an apt subtitle for “The Laundromat”) and Ellen’s second indignity. After she and her surviving family travel to Vegas to buy a condo that overlooks the spot where she met her departed husband, Ellen finds out that a buyer has swiped the apartment from her, paid double the asking price, and all in cash. “Who pays in cash!?” she proclaims. You know the answer is going to be “Russians” (or maybe “the Chinese”). A clever script would have left it unsaid. This script says it, and so the civics world lesson continues.
So maybe the film is about oligarchy, or the extremely wealthy? Maybe, even, it is all connected in one recognizable, unifying theory? After all, as Ellen begins an investigation into the Russians who purchased the condo and the insurance company that defrauded the boat company, she gains a glimpse into the world of “tax avoidance.” But for all of “The Laundromat’s” preachiness, it never actually bothers to tell you just how or why creating a shell company in Nevis leads to avoiding taxes on U.S. income. The entire lesson boils down to: “shells are bad, rich people are bad, mmkay?”
Nothing holds the moving pieces of this directionless story together, except the three constants are Streep, Oldman, and Banderas. They are asked to ham it up and have fun with it, to exude a parade of silly accents to telegraph that a lot of is tongue in cheek, dark humor, parody. It is the filmmakers’ way of saying both that they must laugh in order not to cry at the helplessness of the truths they are decrying, but also that they are not taking this too seriously so they are not threatening to you. While the accents do not have their intended effect they are admittedly funny, and Streep is pretty hilarious, especially in some of her more covert work in this film (which have caused some unneeded controversy). A parade of other well-known actors parades through like a circus of hackneyed players in the scams, including Jeffrey Wright as the Caribbean owner of a fraudulent company and Matthias Schoenaearts as a sleazy British banker. None are as amusing or as convincing as Meryl, who as usual steals every scene she is in.
By the time you get, mercifully, to lesson number 5, your head will be both ready to explore and numb with boredom. The pearls of wisdom will have continued to run the gamut from things like “everyone has a price” to “Germany’s economy is highly dependent on exports” and “regulation is what caused money to move offshore, plus Delaware started it all anyway.” As icing on the cake “The Laundromat” offers one last, neck-breaking coda: it is all the fault of the United States, of campaign finance laws, and of Trump’s Tax Reform Bill. What?
The worst part of such a misguided exercise is not just that it is confusing, messy, or too sure if itself. It is not even that it is ripping off directly from Adam McKay’s infinitely better film, or that it mostly wastes the talent of the impressive cast it amasses. And it is not even that the episodic structure of the story makes it difficult for you to care about any particular character beyond Streep’s Ellen. The worst part of a film like that is that for all the lessons, all the quotes, all the supposedly jaw-dropping expose, you walk out none the wiser. Nothing is actually explained. Soderbergh and Burns may think they are rationally pulling the wool from over the eyes of an outraged people who have been blinded into not perceiving the truths around them. But they are not. All they are doing is dealing in the same currency, in that same language: outrage as the means and the ends of their tutorial, and nothing more.
“The Laundromat” will be distributed by Netflix starting Sept. 27, 2019