The Laundromat review: the Netflix movie that survived a legal threat

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Inspired by the Panama papers scandal, Steven Soderbergh’s second Netflix Original The Laundromat plays fast and loose with its format – here’s our review.

As some predicted at the time, Steven Soderbergh has been just as busy since retiring as he was before. Starting with 2017’s Logan Lucky, his first directorial effort in more than four years, Soderbergh has renewed his career with a series of films about individuals trapped by inflexible and/or unfair systems. Naturally, it falls to him to make The Laundromat, a Netflix Original movie about “corporate service provider” Mossack Fonseca and the wide-ranging implications of the Panama papers leak in 2016.

To jog your memory, Mossack Fonseca was a law firm involved in enabling companies to avoid tax (as opposed to evading it) through the creation of shell corporations that don’t exist outside of a PO box and an email address in some remote location, i.e. Panama. The two founders of that company are played by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas respectively, and they serve as our tuxedoed guides through an anthology that is similarly comprised of barely connected shells.

Ostensibly, we’re following Ellen Martin (Streep), who falls victim to the unscrupulous practices of a major insurance company after a dream holiday goes disastrously wrong. Determined to get to the bottom of this confusing scandal, Ellen travels across the world and tries to shake some trees, only to meet with resistance from implacable corporations and befuddled journalists.

The movie is at its best when focusing on this central character, with Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, The Informant!) using Oldman and Banderas’ narrators to contextualise the central story. We also get lashings of Robert Patrick and David Schwimmer, both on dazzling form as the similarly blindsided tour company owners. However, the film only follows them and Ellen (who’s brilliantly, wistfully played by Streep) so far, before segueing into the anthology structure.

Soderbergh is nothing if not an actor’s director, so the subsequent vignettes offer some briefly compelling turns from Nonso Anozie and Matthias Schoenaerts. As for Burns’ script, it’s cleverly written, but after a certain point, it completely disconnects from the more Soderbergh-friendly angle. The problem is that the further we get from The Big Short, Adam McKay’s exceptionally entertaining guided tour of the 2008 financial crisis, the more it looks like a one-off.

With its heady mix of righteous anger and irreverent infotainment, this Oscar-winning polemic is a hard act to follow. Even for McKay himself, who went onto make the much less enjoyable Dick Cheney biopic Vice, this fourth-wall-breaking format lends itself to condescension and outright mansplaining so easily, and so it goes in The Laundromat.

What’s more, the director’s creative freedom here is a double-edged sword. For his other 2019 effort, the sorely underappreciated High Flying Bird, Netflix provided the ideal soapbox for his off-kilter comedy about a hard-working sports agent, satirising the Hollywood studio system that exasperated him to the point of retirement. But given the news coverage of the streaming giant’s taxes last year, it’s hard to imagine a less sturdy platform for this latest effort and its scathing indictment of tax avoidance.

The comic futility of this is very much a feature, rather than a bug. For all of the scuttlebutt about the film’s release potentially being blocked (US courts threw out the real Mossack and Fonseca’s cease-and-desist suit against Netflix last Wednesday), Soderbergh knows that we know how the rich exploit and abuse the system and that this latest recounting won’t change a thing. That’s a perfectly valid approach, except that this is a film about the system rather than the people stuck inside it.

As a result, The Laundromat is the least personal of the films he’s made since coming out of retirement. It’s better than what most directors would have done with the same angle on the subject matter, but it’s strange to watch the usually reliable pairing of Soderbergh and Burns wilfully undermine themselves. Barring a couple of strong performances, it’s a bit of a wash.

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