Skip to main content

I have a cow, but I hate bananas.

The Laundromat
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Steven Soderbergh’s flair for cinematic mediocrity continues with this attempt at The Big Short-style topicality, taking aim at the Panama Papers but ending up with a mostly blunt satire, one eager to show how the offshore system negatively impacts the average – and also the not-so-average – person but at the expense of really digging in to how it facilitates the turning of the broader capitalist world (it is, after all based on Jake Bernstein’s Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite).

As per Traffic and Contagion, Soderbergh illustrates his big idea via several “human” stories, centremost being a mannered Meryl Streep trying to get to the bottom of why there isn’t any insurance money after her husband James Cromwell drowns and finding the answer in obfuscating offshore shell companies. Or rather, failing to find it there. Streep’s usually at her best when she has something dramatic and meaty to dig into, but her bumbling Miss Marple pensioner is something of a cypher. She over-compensates for this by hamming it up as one of the little people – not really her scene – in the most irritating fashion (and that’s beside her dual role reveal, courtesy of Latino brownface; but hey, everyone’s doing it, just ask the Canadian Prime Minister). Remember back around the time of She-Devil, when it was suggested Meryl couldn’t do comedy? The intervening thirty years will dissolve before your eyes.

To illustrate the truly international nature of this corruption, there are also suspect Chinese and African parties involved. Businessman Nonso Alonzo attempts to dissuade his daughter from telling her mother about his salacious behaviour towards her best friend by giving her a company worth $20m. Only, when she checks up on its assets, there’s only $37 in there: a cautionary story about the perils of bearer shares! Rosalind Chao makes Matthias Schoenaerts’ unlikely Brit (more through his dialogue than accent; he was very good in Far From the Madding Crowd a few years back) regret attempting to pull a fast one on her organ harvester in a rather shrug-worthy “shock” piece. Neither really justifies the time spent – if this were The Big Short, we’d have Margot Robbie explaining bearer shares in two minutes and have done with it – while in contrast, subjects such as the line between tax avoidance and tax evasion, and multiple directorships get relatively short shrift (one aside notes “She was the director of 25,000 companies”).

Where The Laundromat nearly works, though, is in the Carry On Panama antics of an outrageously accented Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as law firm partners Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca respectively, blithely amoral and unwilling to take any responsibility for their actions as they talk us through their studious lack of client due diligence and numerous dubious practices. This is where we sail closest to The Big Short territory, since arguably the most effective way to tut at immoral and unethical behaviour is having those engaged in it revel in their actions (see also The Wolf of Wall Street). There’s an appealingly cartoonish flippancy to these scenes – fifty years ago, Terry-Thomas might have played one of them – but they don’t go far enough. Indeed, the high point might be the opening spiel, with Banderas giving man the secret of fire while he explains the birth of credit.

Scott Z Burns also wrote the very good The Informant! for Soderbergh (and the decidedly more average Contagion and Side Effects), so there’s no reason to think he can’t reproduce a sharply satirical tone, but The Laundromat appears to have got away from him in much the way offshore affairs have escaped serious movie scrutiny over the years – aside from the tried and tested use of a Cayman or Swiss bank account as a means to secrete the third act loot. He and his director haven’t really found the story in the scandal, nor have they netted a sense of outrage.

There’s perhaps a glimmer of it right at the end, when the finger is pointed closer to home (“So where did these ideas come from? Where most ideas come from: The United States of America”). This is easily the picture’s sharpest “tirade”, as Oldman and Banderas set forth the winners in all this: “The United States. The biggest tax haven in the world. Delaware. Nevada. Wyoming. How much due diligence is happening there?” It could have gone further, though, and should have, if it really had a desire to give the subject more than a passing glance; the billions the largest companies avoid in taxes are duly noted, but without commenting on the de rigueur onshore tax incentives and breaks designed to ensure businesses remain or set up shop in that particular country or region. If you’re going to start your film with the barter system, you oughtn’t to short change your audience at the other end.

Meryl delivers a scripted to-camera clean-up appeal at the conclusion, in a straight-faced manner rather belied by our having already heard how the director and writer have Delaware companies (but it’s okay, their Delaware companies were set up for legit reasons). And one can’t help think she has a bit of a cheek portraying herself as “one of us” (as opposed to occupying the same status as the elites and politicians she “courageously” sets her sights on). Hers is the glibness of hollow words. But then, what did you expect from Soderbergh? Passion? Its absence might be why The Laundromat is a bit of a let-down. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.