Steven Soderbergh’s flair for cinematic mediocrity continues with this attempt at The Big Short-style topicality, taking aim at the Panama Papers but ending up with a mostly blunt satire, one eager to show how the offshore system negatively impacts the average – and also the not-so-average – person but at the expense of really digging in to how it facilitates the turning of the broader capitalist world (it is, after all based on Jake Bernstein’s Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite).
As per Traffic and Contagion, Soderbergh illustrates his big idea via several “human” stories, centremost being a mannered Meryl Streep trying to get to the bottom of why there isn’t any insurance money after her husband James Cromwell drowns and finding the answer in obfuscating offshore shell companies. Or rather, failing to find it there. Streep’s usually at her best when she has something dramatic and meaty to dig into, but her bumbling Miss Marple pensioner is something of a cypher. She over-compensates for this by hamming it up as one of the little people – not really her scene – in the most irritating fashion (and that’s beside her dual role reveal, courtesy of Latino brownface; but hey, everyone’s doing it; just ask the Canadian Prime Minister). Remember back around the time of She-Devil, when it was suggested Meryl couldn’t do comedy? The intervening thirty years will dissolve before your eyes.
To illustrate the truly international nature of this corruption, there are also suspect Chinese and African parties involved. Businessman Nonso Alonzo attempts to dissuade his daughter from telling her mother about his salacious behaviour towards her best friend by giving her a company worth $20m. However, when she checks up on its assets, there’s only $37 in there: a cautionary story about the perils of bearer shares! Rosalind Chao makes Matthias Schoenaerts’ unlikely Brit (more through his dialogue than accent; he was very good in Far from the Madding Crowd a few years back) regret attempting to pull a fast one on her organ harvester in a rather shrug-worthy “shock” piece.
Neither really justifies the time spent – were this The Big Short, we’d have Margot Robbie explaining bearer shares in two minutes and have done with it – while in contrast, subjects such as the line between tax avoidance and tax evasion, and multiple directorships get relatively short shrift (one aside notes “She was the director of 25,000 companies”).
Where The Laundromat nearly works, though, is with the Carry On Panama antics of an outrageously accented Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as law firm partners Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca respectively, blithely amoral and unwilling to take any responsibility for their actions as they talk us through their studious lack of client due diligence and numerous dubious practices. This is where we sail closest to The Big Short territory, since the most effective way to tut at immoral and unethical behaviour is arguably having those engaged in it revel in their actions (see also The Wolf of Wall Street).
There’s an appealingly cartoonish flippancy to these scenes – fifty years ago, Terry-Thomas might have played one of them – but they don’t go far enough. Indeed, the high point might be the opening spiel, with Banderas giving man the secret of fire while he explains the birth of credit.
Scott Z Burns also wrote the very good The Informant! for Soderbergh (and the decidedly more average Contagion and Side Effects), so there’s no reason to think he can’t reproduce a sharply satirical tone. But The Laundromat appears to have got away from him in much the way offshore affairs have escaped serious movie scrutiny over the years – aside from the tried and tested use of a Cayman or Swiss bank account as a means to secrete the third-act loot. He and his director haven’t really found the story in the scandal, nor have they netted a sense of outrage.
There’s perhaps a glimmer of it right at the end, when the finger is pointed closer to home (“So where did these ideas come from? Where most ideas come from: The United States of America”). This is easily the picture’s sharpest “tirade”, as Oldman and Banderas set forth the winners in all this: “The United States. The biggest tax haven in the world. Delaware. Nevada. Wyoming. How much due diligence is happening there?”
It could have gone further, though, and should have, if Soderbergh really had a desire to give the subject more than a passing glance; the billions the largest companies avoid in taxes are duly noted, but without commenting on the de-rigueur onshore tax incentives and breaks designed to ensure businesses remain or set up shop in that particular country or region. If you’re going to start your film with the barter system, you oughtn’t to short change your audience at the other end.
Meryl delivers a scripted to-camera clean-up appeal at the conclusion, in a straight-faced manner rather belied by our having already heard how the director and writer have Delaware companies (but it’s okay, their Delaware companies were set up for legit reasons). And one can’t help think she has a bit of a cheek portraying herself as “one of us” (as opposed to occupying the same status as the elites and politicians she “courageously” sets her sights on). Hers is the glibness of hollow words. But then, what did you expect from Soderbergh? Passion? Its absence might be why The Laundromat is a bit of a let-down.