Release: Friday, September 27, 2019
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
The Laundromat is a new film from Steven Soderbergh that tries to make you mad at the world in a way that will remind you most of Adam McKay’s The Big Short. Stylistically the two are nearly identical. They both use big casts, sardonic humor and some creative narrative stunts (fourth-wall breaks, eye-popping visualizations) to increase the entertainment value. It’s the subject of the filmmakers’ rage that differs, with Soderbergh shaking his fists not at Wall Street but rather Mossack Fonseca, a massive offshore financial services provider.
Strangely, The Laundromat actually enraged me whereas The Big Short struggled to even engage me. I’m prepared to admit this could well be actor favoritism on my part and nothing to do with the subject matter itself. Because let me tell you, few things in life get me more excited than the prospect of reviewing a movie about tax fraud and evasion . . . excuse me, “avoidance.” So let’s just call it the Meryl Streep Factor — that woman makes everything better, more interesting. Of course she is not the whole deal here but she is a significant piece of this complicated puzzle. She also plays multiple characters, which is fun but perhaps a little on the gimmicky side.
The Laundromat is a pretty hefty undertaking. Writer Scott Z. Burns simplifies by using title cards prefacing the major concepts — chapters that break down into groups of winners and losers, the have’s and the have not’s, or in the language of the movie, “wolves” and “sheep.” To help navigate the viewer through its labyrinthian concepts and relationships the screenplay inserts the unscrupulous lawyers as narrators, with Gary Oldman sporting a sketchy German accent as the founder Jürgen Mossack and Antonio Banderas as his partner, Ramón Fonseca. As they pull you aside to explain how this all works and how they got away with it, they also serve as primary antagonists within the story, interacting with a number of supporting characters and generally playing the anti-Robin Hoods, taking money from the desperate and redirecting it through networks to help the rich become super-rich.
Here’s where Meryl Streep comes in. Her most important (and least gimmicky) role is the meek and mild-mannered Ellen Martin. She’s widowed when a pleasure boat she and her husband take on scenic Lake George capsizes. Ellen, though a fictional creation, is critical because she actually provides a face to the big-picture victims, something The Big Short did not do — at least not explicitly. She attempts to collect damages from the boating company only to discover the reinsurance company they went through no longer exists (technically it’s been bought out by another, bigger company — a trust to a shell owned by Mossack Fonseca). Following the bread crumbs leads Ellen on a wild goose chase to the Caribbean. And those who have answers, like trust manager Malchus Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright), go to lengths to physically avoid contact.
The ensuing storylines making up this triptych involve individuals who are harder to sympathize with, yet they, like Ellen, provide flesh-and-blood consequences to a lot of cold-hearted schemery and technical mumbo-jumbo that can become overwhelming and numbing to the layperson. As Soderbergh’s direction expands the seriousness of the situations escalate, the wealth of cash and resources more vast, the real-world treachery more difficult to stomach. All throughout Oldman and Banderas are terrific twisting the knife in each subsequent episode of people getting screwed over.
Simone (Jessica Allain), the daughter of a Nigerian billionaire, faces a moral dilemma when she comes home to her palatial L.A. mansion to find her father having an affair with her roommate and (former) bestie, and is bribed with $20 million to keep quiet. Surprise, surprise: When she visits Mossack in Panama to cash in, the shares in her daddy’s company are worthless. The third vignette is a dramatization of the ill-fated negotiations between English businessman Neil Haywood (here portrayed by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts as Maywood) and Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao), a wealthy Chinese businesswoman with connections to the CPC. Maywood learns the hard way what the corrupt will do to keep their secrets safe. It’s a sobering scene, even if it is only tangential to the overriding themes. Oldman sits in a car and outside the story, callously telling us how sometimes it can be our own ambition that screws us over.
The Laundromat is made possible in the advent of the 2016 mass data leak known as the Panama Papers, some 11 million documents that blew the roof open on Mossack Fonseca’s operations. Journalists connected a vast web of fake agencies from all over the globe, implicating the lawyers in dealings with everyone from morally corrupt white-collar criminals to murderous thugs. In one of the many meta-moments Banderas, on behalf of Soderbergh, makes it clear that if they had it their way none of this information would be getting out. Not that it matters all that much; the pair spent a total of three months behind bars. Mossack Fonseca may have been one of the biggest culprits of money laundering on an international scale — they operated on behalf of some 300,000 companies — but they’re not the only ones benefiting from tax havens and hiding behind complicated legalese.
The Laundromat ends with a bizarre and theatrical PSA wherein Soderbergh drops the curtains on his own production. The final frames are comparably more stone-faced serious. We can debate the sincerity of this gesture because I’m sure some will feel it is disingenuous to have famous, wealthy actors soliloquizing on the urgent need for tax law reform and the morality of holding shady corporations more accountable. They are, however, very skilled performers who are perfectly in sync with Soderbergh’s brand of stylish, creative storytelling. He has a lot on his agenda with The Laundromat, and given the complexities of his 2000 drug drama Traffic, he feels more suited to this material than the guy most associated with the antics of Will Ferrell. Perhaps it was the director more than it was the cast that kept me engaged throughout.
Recommendation: The Laundromat is a very complicated, dense film with industry jargon abounding and a lot of characters involved. Fans of Steven Soderbergh are urged to give it a shot. Those who are better qualified than me to talk about factual accuracy, please feel free to weigh in in the comments below. I felt enlightened by this, but I’m sure some things have been lost in translation while trying to provide a reasonable explanation as to why it worked for me while The Big Short did not.
Running Time: 95 mins.
Quoted: “Bad is such a big word for being such a small word . . .”
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