Premise: In this dramedy based on the Mossack Fonseca scandal, a cast of characters investigate an insurance fraud, chasing leads to a pair of a flamboyant Panama City law partners exploiting the world’s financial system.
Which major Hollywood director could be better suited to tell the story of the “Panama Papers” scandal than Steven Soderbergh? Even though he’s dipped his toes into all manners of genre throughout his career, he truly excels at telling stylized Robin Hood-eque tales of con men pulling a fast one on those who deserve it (see mostly the Ocean’s franchise, The Informant!, or Logan Lucky). Which makes it all the more frustrating that his latest, The Laundromat (currently available to stream on Netflix), boils down to a vacuous examination of greed and foolishness. The movie starts promisingly enough, with a fourth-wall-breaking monologue delivered by Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman that traces the invention of money from the barter system to cash – turns out it’s just paper! – and the invention of credit – you can pretty much just make it up as you go! – that sets up a deep dive into the false promises of the American economy and the various games the rich and powerful play.
From there, we meet Ellen (Meryl Streep), who soon experiences an unexpected boating tragedy involving her husband (James Cromwell). Fast forward a few months later and Ellen has not only been screwed out of a handsome settlement paycheck, but gets out-bid on her dream Vegas condo by a mysterious group of “probably Russians”, as her realtor puts it. If there’s one cohesive theme to The Laundromat, it’s that you can get cheated by pretty much anyone, and chances are you won’t be able to find out who did so. From there, Ellen goes down a rabbit hole of shell companies and insurance buyouts to try to discover who should be held responsible for her husband’s untimely demise. Why can’t she let go of this matter, which includes a trip to the West Indies to literally confront the man behind the curtain? She gives a brief speech about holding someone accountable for this unspeakable tragedy, but beyond that, her character is lightly shaded at best.
In-between Ellen’s storyline, Soderbergh sprinkles in scenes involving Oldman and Banderas at their law firm in Panama, where they each play lawyers whose sole function is to set up shell companies for clients they hardly ever meet. Yes, Oldman and Banderas pull double duty here, both as the expository narrators, and as characters that are based on the real-life attorneys behind the story. Why did Sodebergh make this thematic decision? Maybe he was influenced by 2015’s The Big Short, which also told a complicated story of financial malfeasance through glossy monologues featuring big-time Hollywood stars. The problem with Soderbergh’s execution, though, is that Jurgen Mossack (Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Banderas), when they’re not speaking directly to the camera, barely register as real people; they’re not cackling mad men, nor are they attorneys with good intentions who just got in over their heads. While the monologues are certainly fun and have some nifty visuals, the information they provide could have just as easily been given organically without cutting away from the main story.
The Laundromat might have been fine if Soderbergh would have stopped there, focusing on the cat-and-mouse game between Streep and the bad guys. But Soderbergh ends up getting side-tracked telling stories involving the various victims of the Mossack Fonseca scheme. The side-plots – including a wealthy Californian (Nonso Anozie) who uses his money to keep his daughter silent after she discovers his affair, and high-stakes corruption and murder in the Chinese government – are fine enough on their own, but they never add up to a cohesive whole. Sure, the stories they tell are compelling enough and involve well-rounded characters on their own, but by the time we return to the A-story, we’ve either forgotten about or lost interest in what’s at stake for the main characters. We’re supposed to sympathize with and rally behind Streep’s character, but one could argue that she’s not even the victim of the greatest injustice in the film.
So what is there to like about The Laundromat? The performances are great – if a little meatless – across the board; but when your cast includes old pros like Streep, Banderas, Oldman, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, and David Schwimmer, what else would you expect? The cinematography and editing all work; probably because Soderbergh did it all himself, under different pseudonyms. Soderbergh shot the film with traditional cameras, unlike High Flying Bird, his other 2019 film, which was shot entirely on his iPhone. And the aforementioned monologues that Banderas and Oldman deliver are genuinely pretty fun, with the duo providing enough charm while putting a fun spin on some complex financial and legal mumbo jumbo.
While the Panama Papers scandal certainly has all the bones of a compelling drama – or even a satire, as I suspect Soderbergh intended – the execution in The Laundromat leaves much to be desired. Even though there was no central hero behind the story, other than the anonymous whistleblower that exposed it all to journalists (the less said about Streep’s final speech, the better), the script values style over substance a little too much. Perhaps Soderbergh just wanted to tap into the anti-1% rage that’s always bubbling below the surface in American culture. The widespread exploitation and fraud that was revealed rocked the financial world, and caused the downfall of many prominent public officials. And, sure enough, there’s plenty of that anti-corruption sentiment to go around when looking into the Panama Papers scandal. But if you’re going to put a human face on this story, shouldn’t the humans be memorable at least? Maybe Soderbergh should have tried his hand at a new genre – documentary.