My god, Steven Soderbergh loves a camera pivot. In watching The Laundromat, the prolific filmmaker’s newest film, the seams of his movie making are on display intentionally, if not quite for good reason.
In the shorthand of movie nerds, this is the Panama Papers movie – at least the first in a line of what could be a mini genre. It starts with a lesson on capitalism and credit from Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), co-founders of the disgraced and dissolved Panama City-based Mossack Fonseca law firm. From there, The Laundromat only grows more didactic.
Spiritually, The Laundromat is a successor to The Big Short, in that the financial lessons proffered by our main characters are tinged green; not in envy, but in greed. Unlike The Big Short, however, The Laundromat‘s attempts at satire mostly fail. Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!, Contagion) have plenty of time to explain things to viewers – there are at least a half-dozen conversations on the vagaries of insurance – but this is a story of shell companies and tax evasion, big guys and little guys. Even if you don’t know how to set one up yourself, these are easy concepts to understand; a story about creating a new asset class out of toxic mortgages and then shorting it this is not. People created fake companies to avoid paying taxes and bribe powerful officials. By framing this small story within the history of capitalistic society (and explaining the grand details) things get lost: starting with the tone.
Is this a satire? The names on the poster and the intercut scenes with Mossack and Fonseca lead me to believe so – Oldman’s accent is a joke in and of itself. But where’s the bite? Mossack and Fonseca got caught and went to prison (for a time); there’s an idea there, relegated to postscript. Bribery and corruption persist, thrive maybe, and this is a film that wants to tell that story. Meryl Streep’s Ellen Martin had her life capsize because of it, and she acts as the audience surrogate as she weaves her way through the complexities of insurance. Plus, she’s Meryl fucking Streep so when the camera is trained on her the history of film and her place in it gives her actions added urgency. She sees that the system is fucked and you do, too.
The problem with The Laundromat, as far as I see it, is that this is a film of ideas, not people. Is it satire? I don’t know. Do you blame the system? Or the people who dance in the gray areas of the legal system? Can you blame an idea or the people who use it for ill? I think many would agree on the morality of tax evasion – it’s not effective to spend 90 minutes arguing about it. Neither is it effective to focus on Mossack and Fonseca. These are bad actors, to be sure, but they are really just two pencil-pushing middlemen who do nothing more than provide paper, pen, and a dotted line to sign for the real assholes.
Our eyes, then, turn to Meryl. Through her eyes we’re meant to see how the system punishes the feckless, the meek. (Seriously, we’ll be waiting awhile for the meek to inherit the earth.) In the meantime, we’re content to watch her unravel the mysteries of Mossack Fonseca. We’ve never more than passive viewers, though, as the firm is ultimately felled by a severe data leak that we know to expect as active watchers of the nightly news. Not Meryl’s work. Not wrongdoing. Not any character decision. No, what we sit through is a history lesson playacted by real (or amalgams of) people that ends in a whimper, not a bang.
Well, that’s not the real end. The real end more than just breaks the fourth wall – it obliterates it. The filmmaking facade dissolves altogether as a character recites from text written by the “John Doe” who leaked the law firm’s secrets, pealing apart his/her costume as he/she does so. All artifice is gone and all we’re left with is the sad reality of things. It’s a tidy wrap-up that includes all the film’s themes in a tidy three minute monologue; it’s a moment that reveals what I believed all along: this isn’t a movie, its a PSA.