It seems like it was only yesterday that Steven Soderbergh announced he be taking a directing sabbatical to focus on painting. Since then, he’s directed three full seasons of television and three feature-length films, in addition to dalliances with the theatre. But his break from film seems to have done the famously restless filmmaker a world of good, even if it didn’t last long. His last batch of films have seen him return to also serving in the cinematographer and editor positions, and his experiments shooting with an iPhone have proven that he’s still light on his feet. Soderbergh’s newest feature, The Laundromat, doesn’t feature any iPhone acrobatics, but it is one of his most playful films ever.
Written by Soderbergh’s longtime collaborator, Scott Z. Burns, The Laundromat attempts to both explain the complicated workings of the 2015 Panama Papers leak as well as put a human face to the unethical behavior described within. The story opens with its two devilish narrators, Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), as they break the fourth wall and go all the way back to the invention of money to explain exactly how oligarchs around the world can make, hide, and steal money across the globe. These scenes are relatively funny, though they tip-toe dangerously close to the kind of simplistic explanation that pollutes recent Adam McKay films. Oldman and Banderas are also part of the film proper as the wealthy owners of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, from which the massive leak came. The firm was primarily used by clients to set up shell companies in island nations with favorable tax policies, sometimes for totally legal tax avoidance, but often for illegal tax evasion and fraudulent activities.
The human face of this greed comes from Meryl Streep, playing Ellen Martin, a retiree whose husband is killed in an accident while on vacation. He has a life insurance policy, but she’s expecting a seven-figure settlement from the tour company. However, the company’s insurance was sold to them by a fraudster operating shell companies, which sends Ellen on a quest to find exactly who is responsible for paying for her husband’s death. Along the way there are heartbreaking failures, like when she flies to the Caribbean Island of Nevis only to find out that the company’s address is actually just a post office box. And mixed in with her quest for the truth are vignettes describing some of the corruption mentioned in the papers.
Aside from a murder subplot, Soderbergh and Burns keep the film light and comic, as if the only response to corruption on such a massive scale is to laugh. The director keeps his camera on the move, and he lights many of the scenes to either have the cool glow of office fluorescent lighting or the washed-out glare of tropical settings. It’s not the most soothing or attractive look, but Soderbergh has often favored lighting that suits the film’s mood and setting, even if he occasionally turns on the glitz and glamour for something like his Ocean’s films.
It’s clear that Streep had a great time working with Soderbergh on The Laundromat, their first collaboration. In addition to playing Ellen, she has a second role that eagle-eyed viewers will spot underneath pounds of makeup and padding, but she also strips down all the makeup to reveal what looks like her true self — Meryl, not Ellen. It’s for a surprisingly passionate speech in an otherwise cynical film that will briefly make audiences think that something can be done to stop all this corruption. Whether that’s true or not is another issue.
This article was originally published on September 13, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.