The Laundromat, in principle, doesn’t bring Steven Soderbergh to mind. The elevator pitch for it might well do – “the story of the Panama Papers leak told with enough broadness to portray both the Mossack Fonseca founders and several civilians who were affected by them” – but, even though Soderbergh is arguably Hollywood’s resident expert on individuals finding new (and entertaining) ways of kicking the capitalists right in the ass, this one felt too broad and rooted in a known quantity for him. It wasn’t small enough to fit Sodie’s mould.
Nor would it have been reasonable to expect that the movie would take an explanatory, fourth-wall-break approach, which droves of viewers have lazily compared to Adam McKay’s The Big Short. That false equivalency goes a long way to explaining what works about The Laundromat, and, equally, everything that puts this movie in the lower rungs of Soderbergh’s output this past decade.
Observing McKay’s undisciplined, thoughtless mockumentary direction, for example, serves to tell us all the ways in which Soderbergh is an infinitely more talented filmmaker. In the sequences where Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, played with the kind of serviceable but fleeting confidence of a pair of talent show compéres, walk-and-talk with us to explain exactly how shell companies and offshore tax havens work, they wander through imagined spaces that all lead into each other.
Soderbergh nails that fakery: each set’s four walls glistening with an artificial sheen. It’s difficult to tell exactly how much work Scott Z. Burns’ script is doing, especially as it feels a little like Soderbergh is working, if not against Burns’ grain, then at least on a slightly different wavelength. Those didactic sequences afford little clarity to the scandal’s origins – but Soderbergh appears to know that’s exactly the point, even if Burns hasn’t quite caught on.
And yet, the film spider-webs across the globe to net in not only Meryl Streep’s Ellen Martin, a sweet doddering widow who is gifted with a natural Murder She Wrote nosiness, but also a wealthy African family whose soapy drama is played out with agonising hilarity; a Bond-ian hotel room meeting in Chongqing; and a chance encounter in a cartel-run Mexican bar. Heavy with a Coen-esque irony – bitter and looking cock-eyed at their subjects – these episodic whatsits aren’t just about the human cost of the scandal. They’re tangential and bracing and adventurous – exactly the opposite of McKay’s posturing, holier-than-thou preaching.
I feel closer to the subject of this movie than I ever did with The Big Short despite understanding it less. I’ll admit that I don’t love how uneven Burns’ arc ends up being, especially as I wish there was a little more to link the grand phoniness of those walk-talk scenes to the transactional little incidents inbetween. But the constructions of the movie offer a more conceptual insight into the unknowability of late capitalism, where everything is digital and companies appear and disappear at the whim of unseen overlords.
Accidentally, perhaps, the experience of watching the film digress in such strange directions goes some way to illustrating how ordinary people like us see these scandals unfold: incredulously and without the know-how to fully grapple with them. That’s what made the didactic mode of the film – especially its ending, which practically dares you to love or hate it – work for me.