I’m a bit of Soderbergh skeptic. That combined with the tepid response from this year’s festivals meant that I went into The Laundromat with fairly low expectations. This must have worked in the film’s favour, though, because I had far more fun with it than I expected to.
Borrowing a healthy helping of self-referential winks and fourth wall-breaking from The Big Short, Soderbergh’s latest follows the Panama Papers scandal with a breezy, sardonic “explainer” approach. And while Soderbergh’s grasp on the film’s “meta” aspect sometimes feels ham-fisted (e.g. the film’s thudding final scene) there’s enough wit and genuine glee to make for an entertaining watch. It also helps when your narrators/guides through it all are as effortlessly charming as Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman.
The rest of the cast here is stacked, too. Delightful faces arrive throughout (in some cases only to exit a few minutes later) and many of the film’s lesser-known actors fit seamlessly into Soderbergh’s starkly, subtly off-kilter worldview, feeling right at home alongside the likes of Meryl Streep.
This works with the film’s sometimes episodic approach. Inevitably, some vignettes work better than others, but when they work, the film really pops. This is especially true of the scene between Rosalind Chao (one of those less familiar faces giving a standout performance) and Matthias Schoenaerts, who square off in a business deal late in the film. To say more would get into spoiler territory, but that sequence is a wonderful showcase for Soderbergh’s chops when it comes to directing clear-eyed suspense.
I do wish the rest of the film had more of that kind of bite to it, though. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns take a largely comedic approach, but some of the punchlines don’t have quite the impact they seem to be working towards during the (sometimes lengthy) buildup. It’s an entertaining watch, but it alternates at times between being too heavy-handed or too vague to have the intended impact.
Being a Soderbergh project, though, there are still some wonderful details included. One small thing I particular appreciated was the subtle focus put on the secretaries and assistants playing witness from the sidelines. Sometimes they try to reason with their wayward bosses, and sometimes they just observe, but they’re always in the frame bearing witness to the corruption. It’s a surprisingly subtle “show don’t tell” touch for a film that does an awful lot of telling.
I guess this all comes with the Soderbergh territory and it worked well for me here. He’s a director who’s always willing to try new things, and while it certainly hasn’t all worked, there’s always something interesting happening in his films. The Laundromat doesn’t have the crackle that some will crave, but given the subject matter its slightly scattered tone somehow feels just about right.