“The Laundromat” recounts dramatized vignettes about the Panama Papers, a 2015 data leak that connected hundreds of public figures and elites from 200 countries to an obscure Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca. After the unexpected brilliance of his last project, “High Flying Bird,” Steven Soderbergh’s atypical foray into awards season is ultimately a well-meaning effort that falls flat.
The director is clearly fond of the small fry, a self-proclaimed champion of the underdog. In “Laundromat,” he attempts to diverge from his known playbook, instead choosing to explain the international political scandal from a decidedly titanic perspective: The partners of the Panamanian law firm held responsible.
Mossack and Fonseca, played by Gary Oldman (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) and Antonio Banderas (“Life Itself”) respectively, are closer to narrators than characters in the story, frequently breaking the fourth wall to address the audience and divulge the nuances of their legal scheming. As a result, the talent of the two actors is largely wasted on stinging exposition and walking around through champagne-plied galas and white sand beaches. Soderbergh’s dedication to their viewpoint is compelling, elongating the single news cycle life of the Panama Papers into a measured look into their actual misdoings.
Yet, the plot is fragmented by Soderbergh’s unconditional adoration of the underdog. In addition to several stories about offshore shell companies that quietly run funds from bank account to bank account, the audience follows a recurring thread about an ordinary woman who discovers the Panama Papers through her dysfunctional insurance company. Ellen Martin, played by Meryl Streep (“Mamma Mia”), is the film’s sole everywoman, and is certainly noble in her cause to bring down the nameless corporations who control her life like the puppeteers they are. But eventually, her rigid morality feels like a performative ruse compared to the rest of the movie. There is something admirable about telling a story of corruption through a lens of rank, privileged apathy. That would be an inherently reflexive movie, immediately forcing the viewer to question their own beliefs about the politically translucent demons on screen. However, Soderbergh cannot resist his own temptations to include the layman, and the result is a wasted Meryl Streep performance that adds little to the film.
The result of Soderbergh’s breadth in perspectives is not enlightening, in fact, it’s hardly informative. “Laundromat” becomes lost in its stylistic idiosyncrasies and sprawling storylines to the point of mundanity. It has all the fingerprints of an entertaining movie, but that’s all it ever is. A middle-school presentation about the Panama Papers would have covered the same amount of intellectual ground as a product suffused with movie stars, elaborate sets and high-level filmmaking.
“Laundromat” is frequently compared to Adam McKay’s “The Big Short.” But the key difference between these two trenchant and bitingly smart political comedies is clear. I walked away from “The Big Short” with an understanding of the financial crisis that was half-soundbite and half-real-understanding. “Laundromat” only provides the former, as compact and instantaneous as the Panama Papers news cycle itself.