April 3, 2016. German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung publishes an enquiry penned by Bastian Obermayer on an unprecedented tax evasion system that has its most central location in the Central American country of Panama, and more specifically the Panama City law firm Mosseck Fonseca. To the shock of the world, it is revealed that heads of state, government officials, prime ministers, artists, sportsmen – you name it, had been involved in the most widespread tax fraud in recent times. The German enquiry is now known as “The Panama Papers”.
Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) is a widow. She has lost her husband during a ferry trip on a New York State lake, when a sudden wave rocked the boat upside down. She’s determined to collect the life insurance purchased by his late husband. As if it could be easy. Where are the companies that issued her husband’s insurance? And why is it so difficult to track them? She would love to buy an apartment in Las Vegas with that money, but the compensation offered to her is way too small for such an investment, and the apartment she wants has already been paid in cash by Russians. Almost alone in her mission, she decides to find the truth. And that’s when this Pandora’s box of fraud and corruption starts to crack open.
TheThe Laundromat, Steven Soderbergh’s new film, is a pretty self-explanatory title. You can tell from it that it’s not going to be a serious retelling of the shady business that took place in Panama. Soderbergh has always been unusual with his choices, he’s never loved being in his comfort zone, and The Laundromat confirms that he’s constantly open to experimenting, even though this time it comes with disappointing results.
The biggest problem with The Laundromat is that it lacks focus and coherence. It’s written as a dark comedy, but it comes off as a farce. It devotes the entire first half to the character of Ellen Martin, only to abandon her in the second one, dominated by characters and figures that don’t generate any interest. It doesn’t help either that two of the main characters, Mossack and Fonseca, played by the surprising stilted Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, constantly appear on screen with their “Economy for dummies”, where they use fifth-grade examples to explain what “credit” is and how, in ancient times, man practiced barter rather than banking. The in-your-face humor comes off as mostly grating rather than funny, and as the movie goes along, it also becomes predictable. Despite the intention of clarifying the events behind the scandals, the script rarely goes beyond the surface level, and at the end of the film it’s hard to remember something that wasn’t already known.
It’s very likely that The Laundromat will be compared to another successful film about a financial scandal, Adam McKay’s The Big Short. The difference is that, while Mr. McKay’s movie relied on brilliant and sometimes willfully farcical gimmicks, it all made sense in the grander scheme of things, that of a nation in disarray that had no other choice than to deal with an immense, historical social tragedy. In The Laundromat, that rarely happens. Facts are laid out with constant exposition, with poor characterization and a mostly wasted cast. There is never the sense of something at stake, the look is detached and cold. Only Meryl Streep is able to inject some color into her character, showing her comic talent in more than one scene.
Will the film have its fans? Yes, but I can’t help thinking that The Laundromat feels like a missed opportunity, given the talent involved.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. Netflix will release The Laundromat in select theaters on September 27 and then will be available to stream on October 18.