'The Laundromat' Review: Steven Soderbergh Delivers An Uneven But Undeniably Ambitious Slice Of Modern History [TIFF]

It's not exactly clear why there's been such a boomlet in explanatory, often didactic, films about recent history. It can't be merely a reaction to the anti-intellectualism of Trump because films like The Big Short predated his rise. Perhaps it's a response to our information-saturated culture and a need to cut through the volume of digital noise. Whether it's trusting the audience too much that they want to know how complex systems work, sensing that they might tune out unless it's laid out clearly, or cynically doubting they won't understand without a spoon-fed explanation, these films all share an urge to inform and not just entertain. It's impossible to deny that Steven Soderbergh's The Laundromat, an instructive explainer on the Panama Papers leak of 2016, is a product of this moment in cinema.

Then again, the trailblazing filmmaker of the modern independent film movement has always been making films like this. The dark side of the economy. People who suffer from the malfeasance of the elite class. A tendency to challenge and provoke viewers with bizarre tangents and asides. Telling us, then showing us. The Laundromat is also very much vintage Soderbergh for people who know the catalogue deeper than the Oceans series.

Like much of his less commercial work (props to Netflix for bankrolling something so shape-shifting and bizarre), The Laundromat proves a slippery work to pin down. It's all built on the backbone of Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as Mossack and Fonseca, two lawyers caught at the center of the scandal that exposed a sophisticated worldwide network of money laundering. They're hammy and self-aware guides to the racket, offering valuable insights into the enterprise and self-pitying remarks within the same beat.

The Laundromat begins with them smugly declaring that the film represents their moment to reclaim the microphone. It's striking at first as a remarkably tone-deaf statement; after all, don't the ultra-wealthy have plenty of ways to make their voice heard in society? But, as they quickly state upon introducing their stories, "they're also about you." Even the last person left at an Occupy encampment must begrudgingly admit: Mossack and Fonseca are correct. All our fates, at least for now, are inexorably tied to the financial behavior of the super-rich. Until we go do our own research on concepts like shell companies and tax avoidance schemes, all we have are people like them to serve as untrustworthy shamans through uncharted financial waters.

The structure of the film, a series of simple "lessons" to break down complicated concepts, reflects their condescending attitude towards the general public. This is all they deem us capable of comprehending: cheating parents, aggrieved widows, crooked small businessmen. Mossack and Fonseca rear their heads in these quaint stories, which sometimes go on far longer than they need to, when they need to exonerate themselves or cast the blame elsewhere. They even call out Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns for partaking in the very same tax havens in Delaware that the film decries – a welcome acknowledgement that The Laundromat, like many films that seek to expose capitalistic malfeasances, benefits from the very system it seeks to undermine.

Lest you think that the film constitutes little more than rich people making you feel bad, The Laundromat does possess a strong emotional throughline in the form of Meryl Streep's Ellen Martin. After losing her husband in a freak boating accident, her desire for remunerative justice plunges her into the shady world that Mossack and Fonseca try so hard to convince average people is too complicated for them to understand. As it turns out, offshore tax schemes prove quite simple to uncover as pure financial illusion. The problem Ellen discovers, however, is that those who stand to benefit from this outright fraud have seized the levers of control across the world. Especially in the United States, they have pressured lawmakers enough to ensure that immoral acts do not necessarily constitute illegal acts.

Streep also plays a second role in The Laundromat, delivering a bizarre turn as a Hispanic secretary in the Mossack and Fonseca offices. She's got heavy makeup, a prosthetic nose and padded hips. Needless to say, it's baffling that this happened in 2019 with an actress who's been on the forefront of many progressive causes in the industry. Soderbergh is many things, but no one could accuse him of being stupid. There has to be some reason for this glaringly insensitive character, though reflection has only brought me to the assumption that it is meant as a deliberate enticement to outrage.

That anger does come full circle in the film's final scene. If The Laundromat breaks the fourth wall from the beginning, the ending burns down the soundstage. It's a moment where art gives way to a political rallying cry, and Streep telegraphs it with righteous indignation in some of her most rousing and complex work in years. The monologue she delivers comes straight from the manifesto of the Panama Papers leaker, and it burns with the passionate desire to end the unjust systems that the film takes pains to explain and expose. It's a master class of how to build momentum while delivering dialogue and a reminder of how lucky we are to watch Streep work. No matter how obtuse the rest of the film gets, the scene is worth sticking around to see. After all, the business of people like Mossack and Fonseca thrives on you switching to an episode of Stranger Things on Netflix and not feeling urged to take action.

/Film rating: 7.5 out of 10