2019 | DIR: STEVEN SODERBERGH | STARRING: MERYL STREEP, GARY OLDMAN, ANTONIO BANDERAS | REVIEW BY ALEX MAYNARD.
As I mentioned above, most of the film’s events are fictional, essentially becoming parables which demonstrate the lessons imparted by our narrators Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas). In reality, Mossack and Fonseca were the founders of an eponymous law firm that created thousands of shell corporations to protect wealthy clients from taxes and other sanctions, as documented in the Panama Papers. The result is a Wolf of Wall Street-esque ‘winking devil’ approach, wherein the audience is frequently addressed by a character who freely admits their crimes but tries to sway us with their charm. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it largely works just as well here. Oldman and Banderas play off each other perfectly, with the latter twisting his natural suaveness into a delightful smarminess. Meanwhile, Oldman gives exactly the kind of bombastic performance I love him for, right down to Mossack’s thick German accent.
Mossack and Fonseca also deliver THE LAUNDROMAT’s version of the explanatory cutaways made famous by The Big Short. While I’ll do my best not to spend this entire review comparing the two films, I could honestly go on for hours about just how brilliantly the latter addresses complex financial ideas. From Selena Gomez at a blackjack table to Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, McKay and Charles Randolph’s Oscar-winning script ensured that what might’ve been alienating concepts became the most memorable scenes. By contrast, the settings chosen by Burns and Soderbergh are often bland and forgettable, for instance, during one scene a bank is represented by a plain white set. Once the credits rolled, I couldn’t remember which topic was being discussed there. The exception to this is the wonderfully bizarre opening sequence of set in prehistoric times, chronicling humanity’s progression from barter trade to credit. In hindsight, it evidently inspired false hope from me.
Simply put, this film is dull outside of scenes involving its narrators or Meryl Streep. Streep plays Ellen, a new widow who becomes obsessed with exposing the shady insurance company protecting the cruise line responsible for her husband’s death on. This insurer is managed by Mossack Fonseca, teasing a showdown between our leads that we never get. Instead, Ellen’s arc consists of her amateur investigation interspersed with subtle mourning before abruptly ending without a resolution. Of course, Streep is great, but I was actually more impressed to see her commit to Burns’ strangest ideas. Firstly, a dream sequence which sees her open fire in the insurance company’s lobby. Secondly, THE LAUNDROMAT’s final monologue taken verbatim from the Panama Papers whistleblower, culminating in a batshit insane twist. Although these unequivocally pushed the film past a point of no return for me, they’re the only parts I’d watch again.
Unfortunately, THE LAUNDROMAT wastes too much of its runtime following minor characters and their respective subplots. Most egregiously, the story of a wealthy man who has an affair with one of his daughter’s classmates lasts for nearly twenty uninterrupted minutes. While I don’t understand the reasoning behind its inclusion in the first place, the fact that it barely overlaps with the lead characters makes it downright frustrating. Likewise, Burns and Soderbergh actually dedicate less time to showing the Panama Papers leak and its fallout. In a film full of baffling choices, this misguided focus somehow sticks out, causing the final product to feel limited in its scope. Despite THE LAUNDROMAT offering broadly useful lessons about its subject matter, it could’ve been done better.