The Laundromat (2019)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
The Laundromat, inspired by the Panama Papers scandal that hit the headlines in 2015, attempts to be a ‘Dummy’s Guide’ to offshore banking. In a series of disjointed vignettes about the power of money (or money in the hands of the powerful) we are shown just how the rich and famous get away with murder. Meanwhile, us regular Joe’s, get the sharp end of the stick. Despite a stellar cast comprised of Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, David Schwimmer and Jeffrey Wright this was a very messy watch indeed. It struck me as a typical Netflix release (all show, no substance), and one that will not age well, particularly with its use of comedy accents and, I cringe to even write this next bit… the Meryl Streep ‘blackface’ parts.
Oldman and Banderas act as our spiritual guides throughout the film, addressing the camera directly and interacting with the various characters at play throughout. Oldman barks at us in a shrill German accent, which makes you wonder if it really was just two years ago that he won the Oscar for Best Leading Actor. Banderas shines all the brighter thanks to Oldman’s hammy performance. They are the literal embodiment of Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, the crooks at the heart of the Panama Papers scandal. They pop up to streamline the frankly skull-crushingly dull financial information the film attempts to impart. This has been done before and in a far more nuanced way in films such as Vice and The Big Short. Here, it comes across as clunky and overbearing. It threatens to swallow the main story.
The main story focuses on Meryl Streep’s Ellen Martin and the death of her husband in a freak boating accident. Let me tell you, I could have watched this heart-breaking story all day. This is the soul of the film I wanted to focus on. Instead, it tied itself up in knots attempting to go down the rabbit hole of insurance fraud, owner’s bonds, false credit etc. Meryl clearly steals the show and her honest and engaging performance as Ellen is the story most will be invested in. The cut away narratives only serve to undermine and slow the pace of an otherwise mildly intriguing tale. Remember a minute or so ago, when I mentioned the ‘blackface’ part. Well, believe it or not, it might be considered a spoiler to discuss this in much more detail, so I can’t get into it. But if you watch this film and can’t see this moment coming you really should not be watching films about complex financial matters.
There’s no denying that it’s a playful film and extremely vibrant. The subject matter is tough-going but the attempts to break it down into easily digestible chunks come across as forced and patronising. Not every chapter (of which there are 5) is a complete write-off, but they only work as stand-alone stories and not part of a cohesive whole. This struck me as odd, particularly when we are introduced to a client of Mossack and Fonseca who is cheating on his wife with his daughter’s roommate. While the 20-minute anecdote is humorous enough, it barely contributes to the overall narrative and felt more like a Tarantino-detour than a well-established plot device.
Amidst the silliness, director Steven Soderbergh clearly wants us to take the issues at the core of the story seriously. In a final-act set piece the facade is literally stripped away and the moral of the story is delivered in a direct, formal and disarming way. For some, the story will no doubt work and the directorial gimmicks will be enough to see them through to the finish line. But I will be surprised if this is spoken of a year from now and that’s a great shame, because somewhere there is a whistleblower who’s being drowned out by the sound of easy laughter.