Steven Soderbergh has been in a simmering rage at the state of the world lately, especially at the continued injustices committed by capitalism. Unsane positioned capitalism and stalking as two prongs of the same kind of dehumanization, where who you actually are ceases to matter in favor of who those in power want you to be. High Flying Bird cut out the bullshit and straight-up advocated for revolution, or the very real threat of revolution, as the only way to get corporations to do the right thing. And now he’s telling the story of the Panama Papers, the documents revealing the egregious lengths the rich will go to stay rich, with his new film The Laundromat. Surely he’ll bring his A-game for this one like he did for the other two, right?
I’m going to get straight to the point: The Laundromat is Steven Soderbergh’s worst movie. Now, this is coming from me, whose lowest-ranking Soderbergh before this was still a 7/10. But this isn’t a merely a case of being worst by default; this is his first movie that approaches outright badness. It’s clearly been made with good intentions, but we’ve all heard the saying about where those lead.
Your hosts for the film will be Jurgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas). If they sound familiar, that’s because their law firm was at the center of the Panama Papers leak, revealing them to be authorizing all kinds of shady deals and fake companies to hide money laundering schemes. As they speak directly to the camera and wander past fake backdrops, they tell us all about money, and what people will do to get it and keep it. I scoffed at the comparisons to Adam McKay’s The Big Short in festival reviews, but I must eat my words and admit that yes, this device is very Big Short-y. It also has some of McKay’s patented “learn about this, you fuckin’ plebe” humor, although in this case, those jokes are coming from the mouths of two obvious jackasses, rather than Soderbergh himself. But I at least found Big Short consistently funny at the time (Vice was such diminishing returns that I worry what I’d think now, but still); while Oldman’s Sprockets accent is amusing for a little bit, these sequences just aren’t very funny, in presentation or dialogue or anything. Worse, it’s not even that effective as education; the combination of their hambone theatrics and the obscure legalese they’re spouting is so overwhelming that all information can’t help but go in one ear and out the other.
After a lengthy tracking shot explaining the history of money from caveman days to now, we’re thrown into refreshing banality. Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) and her husband Joe (James Cromwell) have taken a vacation to Lake George, New York for their anniversary. Joe needs a little help tying his shoes before they go on a tour boat. On the boat, they get into conversation with another couple about why the sides of the boat are called “port” and “starboard”. Then an unexpected wave capsizes the boat and kills twenty-one of its passengers, including Joe. It’s an effective sequence for how quietly it goes from 0 to 10, but alas, “quiet” is not a mode this movie often returns to.
The real trouble starts when Ellen gets screwed out of the boat’s insurance money. It turns out the boat owners (Robert Patrick and David Schwimmer) entrusted the insurance policy to a company that doesn’t exist, a shell company operated by a con artist in the Bahamas (Jeffrey Wright). Who provided him with the shell company? Mossack-Fonseca, of course. And when Ellen tries to buy a room in a Las Vegas hotel overlooking where she first met Joe, it’s instead sold to a group of shady Russians. Who’s providing for the Russians? Mossack-Fonseca, of course.
It seems like Ellen is going to be our crusading hero, trying to understand this scam and catch the jerks responsible. But like Traffic and Contagion before it, she is merely one part of a neatly visually-coded web of people. There are many scenes at the Mossack-Fonseca offices, shot handheld with a washed-out color palette. There’s a political thriller segment set in China that’s shot in 2.35:1 to the rest of the film’s 1.78:1. There’s a farcical sequence that Soderbergh shot like a bland Neil Simon comedy (complete with diffused lighting). Most interestingly of all, there’s a brief sequence in a Mexican bar with Will Forte and Chris Parnell that appears to be shot through a beer bottle. But even the bulk of the visual experimentation feels a little half-baked, more interesting to think about than to watch. And the bulk of the film is among the blandest-looking things Soderbergh has ever put his name on, with surprisingly generic set-ups and TV movie-flat lighting. He went back to shooting on the RED for this, but losing the fun he had on his iPhone movies experimenting with new and unusual places to put the camera is not worth the gain in resolution.
Why else does this not work while Traffic and especially Contagion do? A big reason is pacing. Soderbergh pieced together those movies’ stories in a way that kept a steady momentum; you don’t question why one story came after another, you just happily go along for the ride. This movie’s pacing is all out of whack, built on jerky stop-and-start rhythms that constantly call attention to the fact that you’re watching several vignettes inelegantly stitched together. Bafflingly, the film devotes much of its second half to two vignettes that play out in full with no interruptions, leaving the viewer to forget entirely about Ellen for long stretches of time. The movie could do a few things; it could commit fully to not having a protagonist and just be Thirty Two Short Films About the Panama Papers, it could be strictly rooted in Ellen’s point of view, or it could have several individual protagonists occasionally overlapping. Instead it tries all three approaches half-heartedly and succeeds at none of them.
The trailer for The Laundromat earned a lot of comparisons not just to those two ensemble films, but to The Informant!, Soderbergh’s last irreverent take on serious subjects. I also saw at least one festival review comparing it to Schizopolis. The finished film is certainly trying to be like those two, with (respectively) its jazzy soundtrack and its chapter headings. But those movies had a lightness of touch that this movie is missing at every step. Scott Z. Burns’ script for this is a lead balloon, filled with so much jargon and ham-handed exposition that any attempt at wit is futile. High Flying Bird also had a lot of dialogue about weighty subjects, but that dialogue zings and is tailored to specific people’s deliveries and ideologies (an Andre Holland line isn’t the same as a Zazie Beetz line and neither is anything like a Bill Duke line). This, meanwhile, takes a one-size-fits-all approach to having everybody deliver the same rhythmless reams of exposition. There are few characters here, just mouthpieces for what Soderbergh and Burns want you to know.
The farce sequence, despite its ultimate disconnectedness to everything else, is at least rooted in a study of human behavior; “dad doesn’t want his daughter to tell a secret to the mother” is a simple, fun dynamic, and the sprinkling of “the rich are fucked up” subtext adds to the fun. That this segment ends up not being very funny is almost besides the point, because it offers something to grab onto. The China sequence, meanwhile, is so focused on relaying dense, obscurely-worded information about corruption within the Chinese government that I spent the entirety of it completely at sea. I’d be at a loss to summarize anything that happens in it beyond “Matthias Schoenaerts is a very suave man” and “Soderbergh can frame for widescreen like nobody else.”
One of Soderbergh’s biggest strengths usually is how he portrays the ways language is warped and mangled, but the language in this film is so crude and didactic, falling like stones out of the actors’ mouths, that I can hardly believe it was made by the same man who made Schizopolis. Maybe someday, someone will reclaim this as new Schizopolis, because the alternately blunt-force and incomprehensible dialogue is actually a commentary on how corpospeak has ruined the way we communicate in America. I will not be leading that charge today. And even if that’s what Soderbergh and Burns were going for, at least Schizopolis was, you know, fun. This is just a convoluted TED Talk.
Now onto the cast. Soderbergh has gotten a deserved reputation for making the most of his star-studded casts, but this is the first time that his typical approach has largely felt like a waste. Jeffrey Wright is an interesting thread abandoned almost as soon as it begins, and Sharon Stone gets a tiny, nondescript part as the real estate broker who sells Ellen’s hotel room. I get Larry Wilmore showing up for one of Soderbergh’s patented comedian cameos as a lawyer happily helping a father blackmail his daughter. I don’t get giving Forte and Parnell 45 seconds of material, 30 of which are an amusing routine about UB40’s cover of “Red Red Wine” and the remainder is just set-up for them being dumped in an unmarked grave. Even the people who aren’t actually in the movie aren’t well-served by the movie. Melissa Rauch’s part as Ellen’s smiling, mostly nonverbal daughter is bad enough with a comedic talent like Rauch, but it almost went to Riley Keough, which would be such a baffling waste of talent that I wonder if Soderbergh substantially cut the part down after he couldn’t get Keough to do it.
The one well-known supporting actor who’s well-served by the whole thing is, of all people, David Schwimmer. In three short scenes all set in the same red-lit bar, he sells the crushing pathos of a man realizing that the system he thought was set up to protect him doesn’t give a solitary shit about him or anyone else. His haunted eyes do more to sell the burden of living under the thumb of capitalism than the movie’s endless monologuing about how the meek won’t inherit the earth.
I must now talk about Streep. She’s very good as Ellen Martin, nicely playing what would probably happen if an ordinary person stumbled upon a vast corporate conspiracy; it would fucking exhaust them. This would be one of her better, more restrained late-period performances if it ended there. However, in what I can only imagine was a real-life version of Linus demanding to wear a fake nose in Ocean’s Thirteen, she also dons a none-too-convincing disguise (including hip padding) and a Latina accent to play a secretary at the Mossack-Fonseca offices. I had heard about this from reviews, and I was expecting something, yes, problematic, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite this appalling on every level. The makeup job makes her look like her face is melting off her skull, and the accent and performance are somewhere between a MadTV sketch and a Dee Reynolds character. Many didn’t like Tilda Swinton’s old-man performance in Suspiria, but at least that tied into the film’s themes of our bodies never being totally our own. This is just a gimmick, a bizarre and deeply unfunny gimmick at that (a prop for prop’s sake, if you will). Anyone who thought the Julia Roberts business in Ocean’s Twelve was embarrassing might go into cardiac arrest trying to watch this.
The Laundromat concludes with a gambit stolen from the end of Full Frontal, revealing the movie-set artifice of everything you’ve seen and hoping you can still accept it anyway. But Full Frontal did this with just a camera movement; The Laundromat does it by having Meryl Streep lecturing directly to you about the importance of tax reform and making a better society. Not Ellen Martin, not even that ludicrous faux-Latina version of Meryl Streep, but Meryl Streep herself. In case we didn’t get the message, she then assumes the pose of Lady Liberty. This is the kind of gesture that might work in a Spike Lee movie, since Lee has a knack for making movies that are both didactic and cinematically exciting. But Soderbergh is not Spike Lee (the jury at Cannes in 1989 would agree), because; he’s much better with grace notes than he is with this kind of hitting you over the head. Traffic has its own problems with speechifying and underlining the text, but it at least knows to end in a place of serene reflection to counterbalance that; closing on a scene this loud in a movie this chaotic is more likely to tire the viewer than get them to go to action. But even if the scene was perfectly-modulated, it doesn’t belong in this specific movie, which has done a pretty poor job of educating you on these matters beyond the truth that you are powerless against the evils of the wealthy. High Flying Bird closed with a similar call to arms, but that was a movie specifically about the long, difficult, and rewarding path to revolution (a subject Soderbergh knows well). This is a movie about how you’re fucked that ends with Meryl Streep telling you “Now go get unfucked!”.
Soderbergh has often said he needs to work fast to get good results. Unsane and High Flying Bird were practically shot during Soderbergh’s lunch breaks and are two of the most electric films in his catalog. The Laundromat, meanwhile, was announced before Logan Lucky was even shot, presumably spent the following two years before production began getting fussed over, and came out looking like this. Maybe his instincts are more correct than I’m giving him credit for here.
Lester Scale: Failure
The Soderbergh Players: Meryl must’ve liked the experience of shooting this, because she’s coming back for round two with Let Them All Talk, Soderbergh’s next film. It sounds like a much smaller-scale movie, just five people chatting about their lives in two locations (and like High Flying Bird, it’s written by a playwright), which sounds exactly what the doctor ordered after this jumbled, globe-trotting mess (and it’s got Lucas Hedges, who feels like he’ll do amazing with Soderbergh). As for the present-tense Soderbergh players, Banderas was previously one of the many untrustworthy fellows in Haywire, who got to deliver one of the decade’s greatest final lines, and Sharon Stone was the honest-to-god lead of Soderbergh’s app/miniseries/whatever Mosaic, which went under the radar but is so much better than this.
Scott Z. Burns had been Soderbergh’s best screenwriter before this, having written Informant!, Contagion, and Side Effects, but apparently his self-directed and Soderbergh-produced The Report is quite good, so perhaps this is an isolated whiff on his record like it is on Soderbergh’s. Other than him, this marks the return of many regular technical collaborators who sat out Soderbergh’s iPhone movies. Returning to the fold are producer Gregory Jacobs (there since King of the Hill), production designer Howard Cummings (responsible for almost every Soderbergh set since Haywire), costume designer Ellen Mirojnick (who did Behind the Candelabra, The Knick, and Logan Lucky), and Soderbergh’s longtime buddy, sound designer Larry Blake. They’re all putting in the work here, though I wish I could say the same about composer David Holmes. Holmes’ scores are crucial to Out of Sight, the Ocean’s movies, and Haywire, but his recent work with Soderbergh has seemed a bit phoned-in. His scores for Logan Lucky and Mosaic were fine but forgettable, while his work here is practically elevator music. Maybe Steven might want to try reaching for Cliff Martinez’s number next year.
- I concluded my High Flying Bird review literally by saying “ho hum, another great Soderbergh movie.” Was I ever so young?
- There’s a gag in this movie where Oldman and Banderas call out Soderbergh directly for having five separate companies set up in the tax haven of Delaware. That Soderbergh does not show up after this to defend himself or lean into being a villain is a good indicator that isn’t half the movie that Schizopolis or Full Frontal are.
- The film’s actual final shot mercifully isn’t Lady Meryl; it’s, as far as I can tell, a parody of the final shot of The Thin Red Line, where that lonely, sprouting palm tree on the beach has grown into several, but it’s the same deliberately fakey beach that Mossack and Fonseca occasionally narrate from. So Malick’s hope for beauty coming from horror is replaced by Soderbergh seeing any kind of hope as fundamentally fake, or possibly even just a plant by the rich to keep us pacified. Which, okay, that’s an interesting idea (and in line with the nihilism of Unsane). Except it follows an earnest call to action that presumably is in the movie because the filmmakers believe that change is possible. So either I’m reading way too much into that last shot, or Soderbergh was making jerk-off motions behind the camera during Meryl’s speech.
- One of the few flashes of infectious Informant!-esque silliness; someone describing Panama as being “like the hat”.
- Banderas’ casting is likely a Soderberghian meta-joke on Pedro Almodovar being implicated in the Panama Papers. I wish he’d went further with the joke and straight-up cast Banderas as Almodovar, even if that would’ve made the press cycle for Pain and Glory a little awkward.
Up Next: In his first audio commentary in three years, Soderbergh talks to cellphone company/director Greg Mottola and Robert Altman protagonist/editor Anne McCabe about their film The Daytrippers.