“Based on actual secrets”, Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat sets out to give us an ABC of the Panama Papers, a 2016 leak which revealed the complex web of tax avoidance schemes operating all over the world. However, in the process, Soderbergh creates a murky map of what happened with little dramatic pull to keep his audience intrigued. The rich get richer, the audience gets frustrated.
In a style similar to Adam Mckay’s The Big Short, the picture centres on the slick lives of the real-life Panama City law firm founders Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, played by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas respectively. Their smug monologues break the fourth wall and show us the ropes of an often inexplicable financial system. We meet the unlikely duo sipping on garishly coloured cocktails, walking the walk and talking about the dawn of money and the evolution of bartering since the caveman days. They live their lives protected by a complex system with holes known only to a select few and exploited by them for the rich and powerful. Many degrees of separation apart, Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) is a recent widow adversely affected by their fake insurance policy schemes. A woman on a futile mission, she sets out to discover the truth.
Scott Z Burns adapted the script from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jake Bernstein’s 2017 novel Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite. The screenplay is at once convoluted and irritatingly direct; it paints with both broad brush strokes and minute detail. Streep’s character stands in for the still-unknown John Doe who blew the whistle on innumerable cases of malfeasance.
All evidence points to a fun film. But smash cuts, misleading dream sequences, clumsy affairs and continual one-liners afford it a shaky structure. The result is a stylistically confusing movie with extraneous scenes, shallow character development and a stream of jokes that don’t land. Human life is disposable in the standoff with the mega-wealthy. Nonetheless, even the confident prowess of Oldman, Banderas and Streep cannot carry the feature.
The metatheatrics are so blatant that there is little joy in unpacking the film’s throughline. It’s a sea of cheapskates and misconduct which ebbs and flows with turbulence but no power. The Laundromat ends on an impassioned note about campaign finance reform; but as is often the case for the non-rich and non-powerful, the pay-off is rather unsatisfying.
The Laundromat is released nationwide on 27th September 2019, and on Netflix on 18th October 2019.
Watch the trailer for The Laundromat here: