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Non-Review Review: The Laundromat

The Laundromat is as messy and awkward as it is ambitious and creative.

At the very least, The Laundromat demonstrates that director Steven Soderbergh is as playful as he has ever been. Soderbergh is fifty-six years old. He is supposedly retired. However, Soderbergh remains vital and energised. Soderbergh’s filmography is ecclectic, with projects varying wildly in terms of tone and quality. However, a willingness to experiment and to try new things remains one of the most unifying threads within his expansive filmography. While some older directors get stuck in familiar patterns and routines, Soderbergh seems pathologically anxious about the possibility of stasis.

A wealth of revelations.

This is most obvious in terms of craft, with Soderbergh often tweaking how he produces and distributes his output. Soderbergh directed the entirety of The Knick, embracing the potential of television as a storytelling medium beyond the familiarity of cinema. He has spent his retirement re-editing classic films, reflecting the ascent of “remix” culture. He shot all of Unsane on an iPhone, seizing on the potential of new technology to alter the film-making paradigm. He partnered with Netflix for the release of High Flying Bird, taking advantage of the streaming service’s deep pockets and esoteric sensibilities.

The Laundromat is not a huge leap for Soderbergh in terms of craft. Instead, it’s an ambitious film in terms of narrative. The Laundromat represents an effort on the part of the director to map the complicated and corrosive mechanisms of global capitalism through a series of sprawling and open-ended vignettes intended to sketch the outline of something far larger than any single story. It’s a familiar Soderbergh premise; the director has long been fascinated by the way in which systems and structures work – especially those built around capitalism or globalisation. It doesn’t always work, but is never less than fascinating.

Boxed in.

In that sense, The Laundromat is clearly of a piece with Soderbergh’s other output. These preoccupations simmer through a lot of Soderbergh’s recent films; Unsane was arguably more effective as a horror story about capitalist healthcare than the pulpy thriller that it became, while High Flying Bird is one of the most compelling movies ever made about labour negotiation. That said, The Laundromat feels like a companion piece to his earlier collaborations with writer Scott Z. Burns, Contagion and Side Effects, as an attempt to navigate a fundamentally broken system.

However, there is also a sense in which Soderbergh is trying to explore these familiar themes in a novel way. The Laundromat owes a lot to the recent films of Adam McKay, such as The Big Short and Vice, in attempting to find a way to translate abstract and systemic evil into a familiar narrative template. The Laundromat is playful and goofy, cheeky and self-aware. Characters often talk to the camera as they outline complicated constructs in conversational English. The film takes the audience on a whirlwind tour of the various complicated systems of global capitalism to illustrate ideas of abstract causation.

Suited to the task.

The Laundromat was inspired by the famous leak of the Panama Papers, a massive information dump by an anonymous whistleblower that revealed the complicated mechanisms that extremely wealthy people (including many high profile celebrities and politicians) used to protect their wealth from taxation and audit. By its nature, it is a sprawling and complicated story that leans heavily on technical jargon and intricate legal mechanisms. After all, these systems are consciously designed to be difficult to follow, to eschew linear flows as an evasive mechanism. If the story were simple, the scheme would never have worked.

Soderbergh and Burns cunningly decide to weave that sprawling and muddled structure into the story that they are telling, to illustrate not only the mechanics of how these schemes work, but to tell the story in such a way as to underscore just how sprawling and disjointed the reach of this corruption can be. It is a daring choice, sidestepping the potential clarity of a conventional narrative structure for something that is “truer” to the texture of this particular story. (Of course, as the film’s evasive-but-not-entirely-unreliable narrators would undoubtedly point out, that is all for a certain value of “truth.”)

Schwimming in debt.

The Laundromat is never less than breathtaking in its ambition. Playing into the idea that the global economy is nothing but an elaborate house of cards – that “shell companies” are nothing but a fancier twenty-first century shall game – there is a vaudevillian quality to the whole production. Soderbergh casts Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca respectively, who take the audience on a tour of their strange little world. The film opens with the pair explaining the origins and concept of money, before offering the audience a cautionary tale about one victim of their scams.

The Laundromat repeatedly and consciously draws attention to its unreality. Mossack and Fonseca are aware of their status as narrators within a film, often transitioning between scenes by walking from one scene to another. The Laundromat only heightens the unreality by presenting these sequences as extended single takes, which have obviously been augmented through the use of computer generated imagery. Mossack and Fonseca aren’t just moving through uncanny recreations of the real world, they are often navigating computer-generated facsimiles of uncanny recreations of the real world.

Getting fiscal.

As with The Big Short and Vice, there are moments when this wry self-awareness seems almost too much. Of course, the staged artifice and disconnected plotting of The Laundromat is the entire point of the exercise, but it still feels a little bit too aloof and too disconnected for its own good. The film’s ironic detachment is a clever way of literalising the disconnect that exists between the reality that exists within the paper trails of high finance and the physical world inhabited by normal people, but the disconnect occasionally becomes a problem of itself.

The Laundromat is never anything less than clever or fun, but there are moments when it struggles to be much more. The film occasionally attempts to uncut its hyper-reality by infusing the story with real stakes. Soderbergh casts Meryl Streep as Ellen Martin, a woman who is widowed in a freak accident and who spends the rest of the movie trying to stay afloat as the complicated mechanisms of an intentionally cruel labyrinthine system are arrayed against her. However, the earnestness with which the film approaches Martin is at odds with the film’s arch and ironic sensibility.

Money matters.

Of course, it is often possible to reconcile two very different tones to enhance a film. There is some truth in the suggestion that the ability to hold two competing ideas at the same time is the very definition of genius. It is not impossible to imagine a stronger version of The Laundromat that finds a way to balance the aching sincerity of the film’s treatment of Martin with its wry treatment of the system that has inflicted so much suffering upon her. Unfortunately, that is not the version of the film that exists.

To be fair, this is also an issue of scale. As with Contagion, The Laundromat attempts to offer something of a cross-section of global capitalism. In the world of The Laundromat, the system is at work in fancy boardrooms, family homes, stylish apartments and even trashy restaurant booths. These scenes are intentionally and ambitiously disjointed. The Laundromat occasionally feels like a collection of short films structured around a set of core themes, taking long interludes to focus on domestic dramas involving bribery in China or adultery in paradise. This structure makes it hard to invest in Ellen Martin as a through-line.

Out of their debth.

This isn’t a fatal flaw, to be clear. These scenes often work well of themselves, and there are moments when the audience catches a glimpse of the outline that Burns and Soderbergh are drawing. The Laundromat is an ambitious piece of work, and many of its flaws are a result of bold choices that were worth making on their own terms. This is very much par for the course with Soderbergh’s recent output, the infectious energy and enthusiasm that mitigate much more conventional errors. As with High Flying Bird, there’s a pleasure in watching Soderbergh build a film around something that feels so inherently uncinematic.

Appropriately enough for a movie about financial hustlers, there are inevitably moments when The Laundromat comes up short. However, there are also points at which it adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

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