What lies within the Panama Papers scandal constitutes the inner workings of a magic trick. The names and data they correlate and implicate represent a vast complex of smoke and mirrors, stretching across decades and borders to conceal the assets and wealth of the world’s elite. It’s a trick of such magnitude and dexterity that its architects, financial lawyers Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, could surely not help but swell with pride at the feat they pulled off. This pride is diffused into the bones of The Laundromat, Steven Soderbergh’s attempt to distill and contain the elaborate, exploitative scheme upon which Mossack Fonseca built its empire of shell corporations and offshore accounts. Soderbergh, flexing his knack for subversive outrage and rebellious ingenuity, opens strong with this anticapitalist satire. He deftly exploits and emulates the smug assurance of Mossack and Fonseca from the opening shot — an assured and dynamic tracking oner which makes full use of the bravado and star-fuelled dazzle that comes with casting Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as the avatars for your film’s slippery, real-life villains.
Oldman and Banderas enjoy easy riffing in outrageous tailoring as they full-forcedly swagger back and forth across Soderbergh’s lens. With more than a taste of Adam McKay’s The Big Short (a recurring formal touchstone which quickly wears thin), the director has his actors speak directly down the barrel, convivially relating the ins and outs of the Mossack Fonseca swindle with a charm that cannot help but disarm the viewer. Between Oldman’s ridiculously exaggerated German accent and Banderas’ grandstanding bonhomie, the rot beneath so much perfume lurks all the more potently.
For Soderbergh, a cinematic zealot, reference and homage are crucial tools in his arsenal as a filmmaker, but The Laundromat leans far too heavily on collective fondness for McKay’s preceding scandal flick, meaning that the knowing zip and sparkle of that opening sequence is increasingly lost as the film marches on.
The Laundromat introduces recent widow Ellen Martin, whose struggles to claim on her late husband’s life insurance lead her down a trail of holding companies and financial records that inevitably culminate in Panama. Played with quiet assurance by Meryl Streep in a decidedly less showy performance than usual, Ellen is positioned early on as the unassuming hero of the story — a fictional analogue for the multitude of “little people” who were trampled underfoot by Mossack Fonseca’s negligence.
Ellen’s Kafkaesque pursuit for answers and the increasingly absurd layers of obscurity she must peel away provide a sturdy narrative backbone that plays nicely off against Oldman and Banderas’ more playful asides — which punctuate the female character’s journey with queasily amoral “lessons” about late capitalism. Streep is more than capable of illuminating depths of sorrow and frustration with the slightest physical tick or vocal modulation, and her subtle work effectively grounds the cartoonish bombast of Oldman and Banderas in the real and awful consequences of the Panama Papers.
Like Mossack and Fonseca, though, Soderbergh is a victim of his own excess. Not content to play out the Panama Papers story through this single narrative, he yo-yos between a number of skits and cutaway gags which are intended to broaden the scope of his subject. This leads to a proliferating cast of amusing, but superfluous, cameos from familiar faces such as Sharon Stone, Jeffrey Wright, David Schwimmer and Will Forte, whose vignettes are amusingly diverting, but fatally distracting.
Patiences are tested as the cutaways accumulate, killing any momentum built in the Ellen storyline — which increasingly fades into the background as Soderbergh clearly asserts his intentions to work on a broader canvas. These sketches start to increase in number around the midpoint mark, which is similarly where the energy of this relatively short feature starts to irrecoverably dip, too. Soderbergh’s trademark directorial zip and vitality dissipates; the camerawork flags and the editing looses its indefinable zing as visual imagination is increasingly replaced with overstuffed monologuing and a few dozen lashings too many of financial jargon.
As it wraps up, the experience of The Laundromat reveals itself to be ultimately hollow. This feeling, very much in step with the tepid consequences wrought upon the culprits of the whole contrivance, is perhaps deliberate, but what makes it so frustrating is that Soderbergh and his team seemed well-placed to say something of real merit and value here; they have all the pieces in place, but instead opt to over-stack the deck. Closing on what essentially represents a concluding statement, Soderbergh makes the intent of his film absolutely overt, but in doing so exposes the failure of his work — the dissonance of seeing wealthy actors such as Streep, Oldman and Banderas lean heavily into the film’s leftist, anti-establishment mantra is never resolved back Soderbergh’s initial legwork is lacking.
A great magician never reveals his tricks, and Soderbergh far too nakedly shows the craft in The Laundromat, whereas a narrower focus, with the human consequence of the Panama Papers in clear sight, could have beguiled, incited and entertained in equal measure.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.