The Laundromat, 2019.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Starring Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Nonso Anozie, Matthias Schoenaerts, Melissa Rauch, Sharon Stone, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Rosalind Chao.
When a woman suffers an insurance injustice, she begins to investigate the shady law firm Mossack Fonseca, who would eventually become the subject of the Panama Papers.
“We are real people, just like you,” deadpans Gary Oldman during the opening voiceover of Steven Soderbergh’s new Netflix drama The Laundromat, sporting a ludicrous accent which sounds a bit like me attempting to do Werner Herzog. He’s playing Jürgen Mossack who, along with business partner Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), founded the law firm Mossack Fonseca, which is now infamous as the entity exposed in the Panama Papers investigation of 2016. Soderbergh’s film, penned by regular collaborator Scott Z. Burns, attempts the almost impossible task of explaining that story in a way that’s palatable to cinema audiences. It almost succeeds.
The Laundromat is certainly a dynamic, energetic film. Oldman and Banderas serve as irreverent narrators, guiding the audience through the murky world of shell companies and the “line as thin as a jailhouse wall” between legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion. Meanwhile, the story spins off in a number of directions, including to Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who finds herself an unwitting victim of some dodgy dealings facilitated by Mossack Fonseca and decides to investigate the shady company.
The obvious comparison point for a film like this is the recent work of Adam McKay, most notably The Big Short. Like that movie, Soderbergh chooses to attempt to bury some of the complexity of the material under flashy, kinetic visuals and unconventional storytelling tricks – animated chapter headings, which don’t really add anything. It comes across here as less overtly smug than in McKay’s film, but it has the same side effect, in that it’s possible to leave the movie without any real understanding of why this was such a big scandal.
At times, it’s as if the film itself lacks the courage of its convictions and has opted to get by on sheer frenetic energy alone. That’s enough to keep the early segments running – helped by the effortless gravitas of yet another memorable Streep performance – but by the time we’re sitting through lengthy skits involving Nonso Anozie as a philandering millionaire and Matthias Schoenaerts as a slimy Brit, the narrative is starting to flag. At just over 90 minutes, there’s little excuse for pacing that’s as variable as this.
But despite the shortcomings of some of its storytelling, there’s no doubt that The Laundromat has intriguing material behind it. When Burns and Soderbergh are aiming potshots at the super-rich, the film has a real thematic fizz to it, but the loose portmanteau style inevitably yields as many sub-par segments as exciting ones. It’s stronger as a polemic than it is as a drama, particularly in a final scene that allows one character – after some rather questionable narrative sleight of hand – to really shine with a potent monologue.
What’s most disappointing here is that this is a film that feels entirely disposable. There’s nothing on offer that couldn’t be gleaned from a newspaper article, or even a brief flick through Wikipedia, and that’s an indictment of how little the movie engages with its context. Soderbergh is keener on the idea of landing easy blows against the rich than he is on actually getting to the heart of the Panama Papers story. And, to be fair to him, it’s really fun when those blows do land. It’s just a shame about everything else – and especially that Oldman accent.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.