Stephen Soderbergh has promised to retire so many times now that it’s tempting to organise a Kickstarter whip-round to get him a carriage clock and hope the door doesn’t hit him on the backside on the way out; at least we’d be spared sitting through such yawners as Side-Effects, The Good German, The Girlfriend Experience or Haywire. His latest, The Laundromat, takes the Panama Papers as a subject in the style of The Big Short, but with none of the energy or focus. There’s a certain interest in the cast assembled, and the subject is a timely one given that legislation clearly needs to change, but Netflix is hardly a non-profit, charitable institution. And given that Netflix are currently being sued or under investigation for tax evasion in several countries, the ani-corruption lecture The Laundromat ends on feels more that a little misplaced, focusing attention to the company’s own business practices.
The draw name here is Meryl Streep, and the powerful opening scene for her character grabs the attention as she loses her husband, in a sequence mirroring a real-life tragedy where a scenic tour boat was capsized. Her character, Ellen Martin, finds herself given the run-around from various insurance companies, and the scene is set for a thorough investigation of shell companies, wealth management and various other aspects of the 21st century financial ball-game. Except Ellen’s story is soon swamped by a number of other all-star elements, none of them very compelling and a few, including Steep in another role, badly misjudged.
Worse still is a framing device featuring two slices of processed ham from Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, who are portrayed as running a dubious Panama law firm and narrate the stories straight to camera. The green-screen work here is poor from the opening cave-man sequence onwards, and the device itself is questionable; why should the one-per cent get to tell the story? And why should eight dollar Netflix subscribers, presumably entertainment seekers, want to listen to a lecture on money delivered by well-heeled actors like Sharon Stone, who reportedly banked $10 million in a pay-or-play deal for Basic Instinct 2? Our fictional Mossack and Fonseca attempt to make a gag of this by pointing out a difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance, but it just feels like Soderbergh is giving himself and his pals a free pass on moral responsibility, shrugging and saying that someone, anyone else is to blame.
The Big Short was no masterpiece, but it at least managed to carry off an irreverent style and give its stars something substantial to do to earn their corn; the famous-face cameos featured here suggest nothing more than a charity telethon, with celebs phoning it in for the cash. It’s no surprise that, to quote an early inter-title, ‘the meek get screwed’ when the exposes are as toothlessly presented as this. As awards fodder, or even as an educational tool, The Laundromat barely gets started, and drops into the same dusty bin as War Machine and other Netflix misfires. That 500 million dollar deal for a 25 year old Seinfeld sitcom can’t come soon enough for a streaming service seemingly out of ideas and out of touch with its worldwide audience.