The number of people I know who even remember what the 2015 Panama Papers scandal was, much less want to see a movie about it, could be counted on…zero fingers. The scandal basically confirmed what has been clear forever, which is that the rich and powerful get certain advantages the rest of us will never see. A whistleblower within the financial services firm of Mossack Fonseca revealed hundreds of thousands of shell companies parked offshore, basically one giant tax evasion scheme. Some of your favorite seemingly-innocent celebs were probably caught up in it, too. But the deliberately complicated legalese and financial figures was enough to make anybody drool with boredom, so props to Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns for trying to slick it up for their Netflix film, The Laundromat.
“Try”, because Soderbergh does give it a go, leaning on the sardonic, free-wheeling style he’s employed on his Ocean’s Eleven trilogy and most recently in Logan Lucky. But the fun they’re trying to have doesn’t fit the material, which is strangely undercooked and impersonal despite attempts to make clear how the rich and famous’ shady dealings can affect the little guy. The complex sea of legal loopholes and mysterious shell companies is meant to be overwhelming, so that anybody who dares try to sniff out what’s going on will either give up in frustration or meet a dead end at an empty address on a faraway island.
Basically, The Laundromat puts the viewer, you and me, in the position of being the sucker. Imagine this is Ocean’s Eleven and we’re the dope who is just waiting around to get fleeced by George Clooney. Structured in a series of comedic, but not particularly funny anthology segments meant to show the many different facets of this global corruption. Our annoying hosts for this slapdash economics lesson are Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, who play fictionalized (although not too fictional, according to my recent interview with Burns and author Jake Bernstein) versions of Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca,the attorneys who facilitated all of this criminality. Both have an irritating Robin Leach affectation that wears out its welcome quick, although Oldman’s high-pitched German accent also makes him sound like a villain in a bad WWII movie. I guess the point is to make us hate them, for they are deserving of our scorn, but they’re so silly it’s distracting and ineffective.
Meryl Streep represents those of us on the ass end of all this scheming. She plays Michigan widow Ellen Martin, who is left stumped when a crooked insurance company refuses to pay out when her husband is killed by a tour boat. Of course, they’re somehow found to be wrapped up with Mossack Fonseca, too, although the connections are as vague as they probably are in reality. To put another villainous face on Ellen’s hardship, the dream apartment she hoped to buy with the insurance money is bought out right under her nose by a shady realtor to a couple of shifty Russians. The father-and-son boat company learn too late that the insurance they’ve been paying for years is literally worthless, so they aren’t covered and are liable. How were they to know? How are all of these things connected?
Ellen’s story then turns into a detective yarn, and this is the thread where The Laundromat is at its all-too-brief best. We get a sense of the matriarchal fun to be had with Streep as a crime-solving Midwestern sleuth, as Ellen gets frustrated enough to start her own investigation. She politely moves her way up the chain until she, and the movie, hits a roadblock in the Caribbean, a roadblock marked by an unattended PO Box.
At this point, The Laundromat seems to have no idea where to go. Ellen’s story gets pushed to the sidelines, literally she’s seen standing around watching as other less interesting stories unfold. One involves an adulterous African billionaire who sleeps with his college-aged daughter’s best friend, but finds he’s unable to pay her hush money because of some unexplainable rules regarding his offshore accounts. Another, starring Matthias Schoenaerts as an arrogant salesman in authoritarian China, is meaningful only to show how deep corruption can go in such an oppressive atmosphere. These segments, along with an inscrutable one featuring Will Forte and Chris Parnell as doomed Americans, lack the emotional impact to draw the necessary anger towards this issue. It doesn’t help that Burns’ script is uncharacteristically unsubtle, with characters interacting with one another and directly to us in soundbytes and talking points. Constructed in a similar fashion as Soderbergh’s drug-trafficking drama, Traffic, it doesn’t have the rich characters, the urgency, or the focus to be as effective. I can only guess it’s that lack of focus which led them to cast Streep in a second, more culturally insensitive role which for the life of me I can’t figure out why they felt the need.
The Laundromat across like a poor man’s The Big Short, using celebrities, visual tricks, and clever analogies to mask an impenetrable subject. But where Soderbergh miscalculates is in failing to have a story strong enough to carry his over-arching message which is that corruption on this scale affects everyone and it must be fought, no matter how hopeless it may appear.