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Laundromat, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Little Short"
2 stars

Steven Soderbergh is, of course, one of the most insanely prolific filmmakers of our time and what has proven to be even more impressive than the sheer quantity of the work has been the quality—between the eclectic material that he has chosen to present and the equally audacious ways in which he has chosen to present said material, this is an artist who is not willing to simply rest on his well-deserved laurels and who continues to challenge himself by taking artistic risks at every turn. Granted, not all of these risks have paid off but even on the rare occasions when he has stumbled, those at least had the good grace to be ambitious failures where one could at least grasp what he was trying to accomplish, even if he ended up falling short of the goal. The problem with his latest film, “The Laundromat,” is that while I suppose I can understand why he wanted to tell this particular story, I have no real explanation as to why he elected to tell it in the manner that he has employed here, an approach that rings so falsely so often you can practically hear the entire film groaning under the combined weight of its unearned sense of self-satisfaction and a series of narrative decisions that could most politely be described as deeply dubious.

The film is based upon “Secrecy World,” Jake Bernstein’s non-fiction examination of the uncovering of what would go on to be called The Panama Papers. If this particular scandal has faded from your memory, a brief reminder: In 2016, an unknown whistleblower released more than 11 million documents pertaining to Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that was one of the world’s largest providers of offshore financial services for entities with tons of money and little desire to comply with tax laws. The shell companies and pseudo-corporate entities that they designed to hide the money of their clients were insanely convoluted and that was the point—the more nonsensical and confounding they were, the less likely it was that anyone would uncover the shell game that they were running in order to make themselves and their clients richer. After the leak revealed their business practices for all to see, the firm went under but none of those who were responsible or who benefitted from their tricks received much in the way of punishment while one of the reporters who helped break the case, Daphne Caruana Galizia, wound up dying in a suspicious car bombing.

The on-screen narrators for this tale are none other than Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) themselves, who, when we first see them, are trying to suggest that their particular form of business is as old as time itself and steeped in a rich tradition that there are merely trying to continue. Before long, however, they cast aside the loftiness and begin explaining the tricks and convolutions that people like them deploy in order to ensure that they wealthy and powerful remain so while everyone else struggles to barely stay afloat. Most of the film is dedicated to illustrations of these particular insights. In one, an insanely wealthy African man (Nonso Anozie) gets into hot water with both his wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and daughter (Jessica Allain) and buys them off with a business portfolio that, thanks to some legal manipulations, is not nearly as valuable as they believe it to be. In another, a man named Maywood (Matthias Schoenaerts) finds himself at the wrong end of a shady business deal with a woman (Rosalind Chao) with ties to the highest and most corrupt levels of the Chinese government

The narrative that gets the most screen time starts off innocuously enough with retired couple Joe (James Cromwell) and Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) boarding a tour boat for an afternoon of fun in upstate New York that ends in disaster and the loss of 20 lives, Joe among them. The trouble is that the operators of the boat bought an insurance policy that has been laundered through so many different shell companies that it seems as if there is no tangible person or company to take responsibility for wha happened. After winding up with a minuscule insurance settlement as a result and then losing a cherished Las Vegas apartment to some Russians who have paid double the cost for the place as part of yet another tax avoidance scam, she begins to do some investigating of her own and finds herself running into one obstruction after another in her quixotic quest for some kind of justice.

Upon reflection, “The Laundromat” is essentially a real-life version of the elaborate heist movies that Soderbergh has dabbled in from time to time like the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy and the underrated “Logan Lucky”—like those films, it involves guys who create implausibly complex scams in order to get rick at the expense of others and get away with it in the end, with the only difference being that it is the ostensible bad guys doing the scamming. I can understand why he would want to tell the story of massive institutionalized chicanery revealed in the Panama Papers. What I cannot understand is the choice of approach that he and writer Scott Z. Burns have chosen to employ. Instead of taking one of the stories and examining it in minute detail to show viewers what is happening right under their noses, sort of the financial equivalent of “Erin Brockovich,” they have elected to use a format more along the lines of Soderbergh’s “Traffic” by bringing together a number of different storylines connected by the same underlying themes. That approach worked beautifully in “Traffic” but it does not have nearly the same impact here because none of the storylines get a chance to develop into something meaningful. The whole thing is so rushed—it clocks in at just over 90 minutes—that you never get a chance to hold on to anything and matters are not helped by the way that it constantly cuts back to Mossack and Fonseca cavorting on a beach and explaining their various duplicities. In an uncharacteristic move for the usually more subtle Soderbergh, he hits the audience with his message about financial corruption that it comes across as kind of condescending after a while. (Imagine that awkward final scene in “Traffic” in which Michael Douglas delivers that painfully on-the-nose speech where he resigns his government post stretched out to a full 90 minutes.)

The other major problem with “The Laundromat” is its tone. Although the subject matter would seem to be deadly serious, Soderbergh and Burns have elected to employ a more comedic tone that will almost certainly remind viewers of “The Big Short,” another film that used big stars, oddball humor and repeated breaking of the fourth wall to explain and expose complicated financial schemes to a public that might not otherwise comprehend all of the intricacies involved. The difference is that while “The Big Short” found just the right balance between its humor, outrage and ability to break down complicated scams into easy-to-understand concepts, “The Laundromat” never finds the right tone and winds up flailing about more often than not. Part of this, frankly, is because the usually ambitious Soderbergh is clearly aping the approach used in “The Big Short” and even in its best moments, it more often than not feels like a shadow of that film. However, even if you can put that earlier film out of your mind, this one never quite jells into a coherent whole and some of Soderbergh’s directorial choices are so bizarre that they essentially derail it long before it can get to whatever point he was hoping to make. The explanatory sequences with Oldman and Banderas are not particularly effective on their own but they are fatally undone by the outrageously goofy German accent that Oldman has employed and which beggars belief throughout. Even more inexplicable is the decision to cast a very famous American actress in the role of a Spanish secretary at Mossack Fonseca and bury her under tons of makeup until a moment at the end when the ruse is revealed. Setting aside the potentially offensive nature of such cross-racial casting—and it makes the decision to have Oldman turn up in a second role as a Chinese driver seem almost staid by comparison—this gambit doesn’t work because it is painfully obvious that the character is being played by someone in makeup (and it is equally obvious who is under all the latex) and because when the time comes for the big reveal and subsequent speech, it is so underwhelming that you wind up leaving the screening not so much angry at the machinations of companies like Mossack Fonseca as they are confused about Soderbergh’s intentions.

“The Laundromat” is a curiously unfocused work from a gifted filmmaker who usually avoids all the traps that he has stepped into this time around. What makes it even more frustrating is that Soderbergh has already released one movie this year that told a story of greed, financial chicanery and the ways in which the 1% relentlessly exploit anyone they can in the obsessive pursuit of wealth. (Hell, he even made it for Netflix, as he did with this one.) It was called “High Flying Bird” and it found the right tonal balance to provide viewers with a film that was both entertaining and a wake-up call to the ways in which the world is really run. It remains one of the year’s best films and if you see one Soderbergh film this weekend, that is the one you should check out. “The Laundromat” is a film that was clearly made with good intentions and a desire to expose financial wrongs to the light of day but it is just too gimmicky for its own good—by throwing out tricks and distractions that end up obfuscating the point as he does here, Soderbergh is essentially guilty of the same things that he is accusing the likes of Mossack Fonseca of doing.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33173&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/04/19 03:45:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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