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The Laundromat
★☆☆☆☆
First run Screening room

When Steven Soderbergh announced in 2012 that he was retiring from filmmaking, did he mean he was just going to stop making films of substance? He certainly hasn’t retired from directing; he’s been as busy as ever with stage and multi-media projects, and he’s continued to make the kinds of experimental features he’s always done alongside his studio career. But these recent feature films seem more like ways to subvert the Hollywood system the director long ago declared broken, rather than the kind of pictures great filmmakers pour their heart and soul into—and isn’t that part of what’s broken in this industry?

Soderbergh’s latest movie, The Laundromat, is the sloppiest piece of garbage this director, who is capable of such great work, has ever put into the world. The Laundromat explores the vitally important subject of the international financial scandal known as The Panama Papers. The revelation of 11.5 million documents that detail financial information for the hundreds of thousands of unaccountable offshore companies that launder money and allow the super-rich to avoid paying tax was one of the most important news stories of 2016. Journalists from one hundred media organizations in eighty countries agreed to work together in secret analyzing these documents detailing the operations of the Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca. The year-long project was a milestone in the use of data-driven journalism software tools and as well as a rare of example of multiple competitive, cooperate-owned news organizations working together for the greater good rather than for their own ability to be the first to get “the big scoop.” Still, how many people have even heard the term, “The Panama Papers,” coined to describe these documents and this scandal? Far too few.

This is an ideal example of where a major motion picture could step in shine a brighter light on a critical world event that didn’t get enough coverage because it was perhaps too big or remote a story for the general public to engage directly with. But Soderbergh’s picture, with its atrocious screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (writer of this director’s sub-par pictures The Informant!, Contagion, and Side Effects) doesn’t even try to illuminate the fascinating details of the real-life narrative. The Laundromat is an empty data dump contextualized by famous actors explaining the basics of the story to the brainless Netflix couch-potatoes Soderbergh and Burns clearly assume are the only ones watching.

Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman play Ramón Fonseca and Jürgen Mossack, the real-life legal scoundrels who masterminded a lucrative business creating tens of thousands of shell companies all over the world from their Panamanian base. The two actors address the camera (for what seems like hours) smugly explaining how they did it. Built around these confessions are fictional narratives of people who got caught up in the many webs of deceit spun by those who took advantage of Mossack Fonseca’s services.

One of these fanciful subplots stars Meryl Streep, in a disgracefully lazy performance, as a retired woman whose husband is killed in an accident, and who finds she is unable to sue the people guilty of negligence because their insurers are concealed behind a shell company. In another narrative thread, Nonso Anozie plays a crooked African businessman who enters into a financial arrangement with his daughter after she discovers he’s having an affair with her best friend.  The various made-up stories do nothing to expand upon the real-life drama that should be the movie’s core. Everything in the picture is spoon-fed to viewers in the same dumbed-down, smirking and self-satisfied style of Adam McKay’s The Big Short and Vice, only without a shred of the cleverness or the A-list performances that made those movies interesting.

Unlike his recent experiments Unsane and High Flying Bird, which were shot on iPhones without major stars, The Laundromat is a full-scale production with big movie stars and a seemingly sizable budget. Yet it comes off as the cheapest, shoddiest, most hastily assembled piece of amateur filmmaking I’ve seen on Netflix yet. Seriously, there are lame wrap-around sequences at the front and back of disposable comedy specials by comedians I’ve never heard of that look like they had more care and time spent on their development and execution.

For those who actually want to learn something about The Panama Papers, seek out the 2018 documentary entitled The Panama Papers by Alex Winter. Yes, Bill from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure made a movie on this subject a thousand times more informative, dramatic, and entertaining than the one by the Palme d'Or and Oscar-winning director of sex, lies, and videotape, Erin Brockovich, and Traffic.

Twitter Capsule:
Soderbergh’s inept, atrociously acted, disgracefully sloppy mess of insulting dumbed-down expository speeches and underdeveloped fictional narrative threads do nothing to illuminate the vitally important real-life subject of The Panama Papers.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Produced by Gregory Jacobs, Scott Z. Burns, Michael Sugar, and Lawrence Grey

Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns
Based on the book Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite by Based Jake Bernstein

With: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer, Rosalind Chao, Sharon Stone, Nonso Anozie, Miracle Washington, Jessica Allain, Matthias Schoenaerts, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, Melissa Rauch, Larry Wilmore, Jay Paulson, Larry Clarke, Marsha Stephanie Blake, and James Cromwell

Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh
Editing: Steven Soderbergh
Music: David Holmes

Runtime: 95 min
Release Date: 27 September 2019
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1/2.35:1
Color