Netflix UK film review: The Laundromat
Ivan Radford | On 18, Oct 2019
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Mery Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas
Watch The Laundromat online in the UK: Netflix UK
The Panama Papers, released in 2016, remain one of the biggest leaks in history. The 11.5 million confidential documents shed light on the dodgy, and distinctly under-scrutinised, methods employed by the world’s wealthy elite to minimise their taxes, or just avoid paying them altogether. Not all of it was illegal – evasion is, avoidance isn’t – and that’s part of the problem: the legal system lacks the oversight and clarification to pick apart these grey areas and hold people to account, making it easier for such shadowy practices to be employed in the first place. The Laundromat, based on Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite by Jake Bernstein, aims to condense and dissect all of that complexity and conspiracy into a 90-minute ride. It is, as you might expect, an uneven one.
That stems from Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’ decision to tackle the thorny subject from two sides simultaneously. On the one hand, we follow Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who loses her husband (James Cromwell) in a boating accident on Lake George, and finds that her insurance claim is tangled up in a whole web of bogus financial entities. On the other, we have Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and his partner, Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), heads of Mossack-Fonseca, the legal firm at the heart of the Panamanian currency skullduggery. They pop up frequently to talk to the camera, while waving around cocktails and sporting flashy suits, explaining concepts such as credit, trusts, shell companies and more.
It’s an entertaining device, one that employs cute animations and some brilliant analogies – the explanation of secrecy and privacy in terms of toilet cubicles is a standout. But it’s also one that recalls The Big Short, and while Soderbergh’s tongue-in-cheek reverse-heist doesn’t merely rely on celebrity cameos to keep things amusing, it doesn’t work out how to balance the narrative books.
The show begins with Banderas’ unctuous vocals and Oldman’s knowingly hammy German accent, as the duo take us back to the very advent of money, but you can’t help but wish we started with Streep’s strand instead: Ellen’s struggle to find closure, compensation and, well, just an apology for her loss is the far more engaging of the two threads, from her convincing bond with James Cromwell‘s short-lived spouse to her sheer gumption in continuing to ask questions and work out what’s going on.
“What happens next?” she asks her adviser, but nobody really knows. What they do know is that the boat company’s insurers were insured themselves by a larger company, but it soon turns out there isn’t enough money to pay out the compensation to all those affected. “All I did was try to save a few dollars,” says one of the boat company owners (played earnestly by David Schwimmer), but what becomes clear is that while it’s ok for the big hitters to do the same, the small fish who try it usually end up facing unfair consequences.
That sharp message, though, is lost amid the movie’s repeated jumps in perspective, as no matter how stirring Streep’s performance is, we keep returning to Mossack-Fonseca for a burst of narration. With even them unsure who’s in charge of telling the tale, the result is a muddled attempt to cover every facet of this global topic – standalone sequences featuring a highly entertaining Nonso Anozie and a deliciously loathsome Matthias Schoenaerts, on the other hand, do a nice job of illustrating the worldwide scale of the corruption without any post-modern flourishes needed.
The result is a creative gamble that pays off in fits and bursts, building up to a pay-off that sees Meryl Streep boldly, visibly leading the charge for long overdue change. But by the time that sting in the tale arrives, the movie has already been put to one side – a sign of the importance of this subject matter, but also of how throwaway this light caper ultimately is. The Laundromat sees Soderbergh at his most pertinent and playful, but you wish the film had more structure to its investment.
The Laundromat is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.