Sunday, October 20, 2019

Rinse and Spin: THE LAUNDROMAT

Steven Soderbergh films have always been political, about systems and process, about inequalities and the thorny knots of injustice that get codified into structures. They’re hugely entertaining and in a variety of genres, but the throughline is unmistakable. His Erin Brockovich and The Informant! and Traffic tell of people fighting systemic corruption. His Contagion and The Girlfriend Experience and Bubble and Unsane and Side Effects tackle the ways in which people are ground down as cogs in the machinery of society or fall through the cracks. Even his comparatively lighter larks — like stripper drama Magic Mike, spy thriller Haywire, the glossy Hollywood heists of Out of Sight and Ocean’s 11, 12, 13, or his scrappy, iPhone-shot, NBA negotiation dazzler High Flying Bird — manage to dramatize the haves-and-have-nots in snazzy packages. (He also made the sprawling epic Che. You get it.) His latest, The Laundromat, is his most direct statement, a loose, uneven, episodic collection of tales scripted by Scott Z. Burns that build to a straight-to-the-camera rhetorical flourish that straight up tells the audience it better wake up and smell the corruption before it’s too late. Here’s a movie about the shell game of the global economy, refracted through a law firm whose involvement with tax avoidance schemes was a big ticket item of the massive document dump a few years ago known as the Panama Papers. It’s all about shell corporations and trust funds and bank accounts where the laws are beneficial and the difference between money laundering and the cost of doing business is simply how much your accountants can get away with.

Although the movie teeters among gripping procedural elements, meandering stylistic flourishes, and winding narrative digressions, it adds up to a complicated and damning picture of the world’s wickedest loopholes. A pair of wealthy, smooth talking lawyers (Gary Oldman, hamming it up, and Antonio Banderas, all smooth and unctuous) narrate once in a while, in obvious, smarmy, condescending fourth-wall-breaking monologues about their schemes and successes. They connect the various episodes, and as fun as the performances are, their big caricatures threaten to throw off balance a film that’s otherwise far more attuned to the consequences of the moral rot and corrosive greed at play. (Think The Big Short if it was good.) There’s a small-town widow (Meryl Streep) hunting down the location of an ever-shrinking insurance payout as it travels through various parent companies and corporate debt transfers. There’s a duplicitous accountant (Jeffrey Wright) on the radar of a determined investigator (Cristela Alonzo). There’s an African businessman (Nonso Anozie) whose blackmail and bribery comes home in a mean way. And there’s a European suit (Matthias Schoenaerts) whose dealings with a wealthy Chinese woman (Rosalind Chao) includes threat so casually chilling that it contains a literal cut like Un Chien Andalou’s most famous shock. Every anecdote is at once darkly funny and boilingly upsetting, compellingly futile yet cut with a sharp stab of empathy for the underdog. Amidst its smooth, sliding camera and deliberate artificial touches (snarky chapter breaks, smirking asides), it’s keenly aware the meek haven’t inherited the earth, and mourns with them as their meager plans for small savings are stomped out by the wealthiest’s quasi-legal scams to get wealthier. It says the global economy is a shell game, and Soderbergh is smart to see it through to its logical conclusions. He states his conclusions flat out, boldly and broadly, a message movie with an exasperated edge, as if he’s letting out a dispirited sigh, saying, “I’ve been trying to tell you…”

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