Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic, Magic Mike) is one of those filmmakers who can make even the driest material seem remarkably entertaining. For proof of this, take a look at something like his Che or The Good German or his excellent Netflix film from earlier this year, High Flying Bird (review here). His latest for the streaming service is The Laundromat, a journey down the confusing rabbit hole that is the global financial system, in which different laws in different countries trying to win favor with big businesses and wealthy individuals make it easy to hide billions of dollars of potentially taxable income. The story is told through profiles of those doing the hiding and those who suffer the most because of this ridiculously corrupt system—I’ll give you a hint, the ones getting hurt aren’t rich.
We’re led by the hand into this seedy world by two men whose Panama City law firm was the epicenter for tens of thousands of these shady deals. Addressing the audience directly, wearing sharp suits and drinking cocktails are founding partners Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), whose specialty is creating shell companies and offshore accounts for the wealthy. They walk us through both the legal and illegal ways they do business with no real fear of being caught.
Then we switch over to the story of Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), whose husband is killed in a boating accident while they’re on vacation, only to find out that the boat company’s insurance policy essentially has been purchased and re-bought so many times that it doesn’t exist. And while she does get a check for her pain and suffering, it is only a fraction of what her lawyer initially thought she’d get. She is determined to understand the maze of ownership that is this insurance company and it leads her down a path of bribery, tax evasion and a host of additional corrupt businesses and politicians that are meant to overwhelm her and hopefully discourage her from digging too deep. But Ellen isn’t like that.
A big portion of this story is actually quite true, and it led to the release of something called the Panama Papers in 2016 that exposed Mossack Fonseca’s biggest clients and ruined a whole lot of lives (that richly deserved it). Soderbergh’s decision to spoon feed us this information (not unlike director Adam McKay did in The Big Short) is the film’s primary flaw; it’s like he thinks by treating his audience like children, he’ll make his point clearer. Instead, it feels like pandering, and The Laundromat turns into one of Soderbergh’s rare misfires. There’s no getting around that Oldman and Banderas (who is in a far better movie next week) are about as charming as hosts could be to serve as our guides through these complicated legal and banking maneuvers, but that doesn’t stop the storytelling device from feeling condescending.
Streep’s desperate performance hits closer to home, and I’m sure anyone who has ever fought with an insurance company or financial institution will identify with her plight. There are also a few amusing side stories and a parade of famous faces in smaller roles (as well as a host of great locations in which for them to play) that assist in telling this story, but it’s Jeffrey Wright’s Malchus Irvin Boncamper (whose relationship to Mossack Fonseca I won’t even attempt to explain, but he’s in charge of a lot of shell companies) who made me laugh the most, as his entire job seems to entail avoiding calls and people, which is particularly funny when you see how he’s taken down. The film isn’t a complete failure, but there is something lacking, especially when you consider the filmmaker and know how much better and smarter he can be (and will be again, I’m sure). If you’re a completist like me, you won’t suffer much, but you also won’t rank this amongst Soderbergh’s best work.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and begins streaming on Netflix on October 18.
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