You know, for a man who famously claimed he was giving up directing movies in 2013, Stephen Soderbergh sure does direct a lot of movies. The Laundromat, another Netflix exclusive, is actually his second of this year, after High Flying Bird wowed me earlier on in 2019. This is actually the first Netflix film I saw a trailer for in a cinema, a sign, perhaps, that the streaming behemoth has higher hopes for this project than it has for many of its other originals.
There are certainly good reasons for such thinking. The director of course, but more than that there is the cast that he has managed to get together, replete with award winners and nominees, The Laundromat taking on the appearance of a Wes Anderson film almost, such are the many luminaries who could all stake a claim to a leading role. And there is the subject matter: the firm behind the so-called “Panama Papers”, one of recent histories most engaging, albeit somewhat confusing, stories. Has Netflix got another Roma on its hands? Or is Soderbergh pressing his luck with his second production within twelve months?
Jurgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), are the two heads of a Panama City law firm that helps their clients hide their assets in offshore tax havens. When retiree Ellen (Meryl Streep) suffers a terrible tragedy, her investigation of the shady manner that insurance was handled leads her to inquire after “Mossack Fonseca”, whose dealings have involved a wide variety of figures from around the world.
The Laundromat is certainly a unique film, insofar as it can be called a singular film. I say that because it really isn’t just one film, it’s more a collection of short stories that could have been parsed out into a TV or mini-series if the creators had been so inclined, and maybe they even thought about that. Using the framing device of Oldman and Banderas breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience about the inner secrets of financial matters, it attempts to craft a general narrative of asking how the little people get shafted and why the rich engage in doing the shafting, but I would be lying if I said that it all comes together seamlessly in the attempt.
Undoubtedly influenced by 2015’s The Big Short, the most entertaining sections of The Laundromat are those moments when Oldman and Banderas glide across the screen, attempting to humorously educate the viewer about financial services, credit, bearer shares and, most importantly, shell companies. There is a campiness to it – especially from Oldman, positively luxuriating in the role of the flippant, non-chalent German Mossack – that is affecting, even when the topics being discussed are oh so serious. Soderbergh doesn’t even try to be subtle about what he is trying to get across: in the opening monologue, Banderas’ Fonseca offers, on the invention of currency, the visual comparison of giving fire to caveman, a fire that subsequently rages out of control as the two brokers walk out of the prehistoric desert and into a conveniently located nightclub.
There follows a series of monologues wherein the two are fantastically entertaining, though I hope it is OK for me to single out Oldman. An actor of his ability seems tailor made to ham it up this fashion, with the outrageous German accent and the unfailing ability to make very weighty subjects seem not at all that serious. In describing the events to be depicted he croons “Think of them as fairy-tales that actually happened” and later muses, in comically philosophical tones, on the suggestion his firm has been involved in something “bad” that “Bad is such a big word…for being such a small word”. Banderas is enjoying himself as well, and might be considered the more interesting character – his Fonseca became a lawyer to “save the world” by working with the UN, before he got bored and greedy – but this really is Oldman’s show. Of course, it should go without saying, that Oldman is a good enough actor that I would gladly watch him read the phone book if he was doing it in different accents.
Unfortunately, the tale this unorthodox Greek chorus is guiding us through is, in the end, a disjointed and unfulfilling affair. Perhaps this is the intention, owing to the complex subject matter, but that doesn’t make the subsequent depiction a good idea. Vaguely split into five lessons that Mossack and Fonseca want to impart to the audience about what they do – that begins with a refutation of the Biblical maxim “The meek shall inherit the Earth” and ends with a plea to understand when your actions are close to getting you killed – The Laundromat becomes the aforementioned series of short stories, all of them interesting in their own way, but none of them really fully-formed enough to be a true stand-out effort from the director.
There is Meryl Streep’s Ellen of course, sort of nominally the main character. Streep is excellent in the role of a “normal” person who gets caught up unwillingly in this game of international financial skulduggery, dealing with a large amount of grief and life upset. Much like Oldman (who, it is revealed strangely late-on, she gets to act with in an unexpected way) her talent is obvious, most notably in a daydream sequence where she finds Mossack Fonseca’s office and starts firing off a shotgun. But the problem is that her plot/sub-plot just doesn’t go anywhere. She’s no Erin Brockovich, to nod at a better film from the director. She investigates Fonseca and in another movie that investigation would lead somewhere, but in this case it just sort of tapers off, and Ellen disappears from the film for large stretches of the second half.
Then there is Jeffrey Wright’s localised representative for Mossack Fonseca in the Caribbean, who appears to be an important character but, like Streep, vanishes after the halfway point, when the sordid details of his personal life are revealed. There is Nonso Anozie’s African businessman whose infidelity leads him to attempt to bribe his daughter (Jessica Allain) not to tell his wife – which Mossack and Fonseca describe as a potent example of the difference between privacy and secrecy in financial dealings. There are two unfortunate guys (Will Forte and Chris Parnell, credited only as “Doomed Gringo #1 and #2) who open the wrong door in a Mexican dive bar. There is a British businessman (Matthias Schoenaerts) unwittingly walking into a spiders web when he attempts to blackmail the wife (Rosalind Chao) of a Chinese politician. And there is the source of the problem, the operators (Robert Patrick and David Schwimmer) of the lakeboat that Ellen’s husband died on, struggling to deal with the fact that cheapening out on insurance has landed them in the worst of situations.
These various interludes, some longer than others – that with Anozie does stretch on, while the “Gringos” are on-screen only for a minute or so – are really the bulk of The Laundromat, wherein Soderbergh attempts to tie his main points together, mainly that “the meek get screwed”, there is a difference between illegality and immorality, trust is important, knowledge of negotiation is important and you have to know when to reel your head in. The problem is that it all feels so jumbled, so messy, that it’s hard to keep your mind on what it is the director is trying to say. You keep waiting for the various threads to be brought together, even in a thematic sense, but that moment never comes.
In order to try and get past that problem, Soderbergh dedicates the final part of his film to the release of the Panama Papers, a last monologue from Mossack and Fonseca who go down swinging and insist they are far from the worst when it comes to doing what they do. And then comes a fourth-wall breaking piece from Streep, who breaks character to recite the statement of “John Doe”, the man behind the Panama Papers leak, before giving voice to what can only be considered a political diatribe from the director/writer (Scott Z. Burns) himself.
The theme is lax tax laws for corporations and loose regulation of the kinds of activities Mossack Fonseca were involved in, activities that many places encourage because it gets investment into their nations, states and communities. This sudden transformation into documentary does the film few favours, and merely adds to the feeling that you are watching something that the creative team itself didn’t know how it would end up as when they started. What we do end up with is a lecture to the audience, and not one that feels entirely welcome. An earlier line sums things up altogether better and with more thriftiness in language and time: “The world is just men hiding behind piles of paper”. Another great example: the difference between tax avoision (legal) and tax evasion (illegal) is “as thin as the wall of a jail cell”.
Soderbergh eschews his iPhone experiment of the last two films (at least I think he does, I’ve found no references to The Laundromat being filmed that way) in favour of a more traditional cinematography. The Laundromat is a nice-looking film even without that sort of quasi-gimmick, most especially those sequences where Mossack and Fonseca deliver their pronouncements to the viewer. The drab of “the meek” is suitably contrasted to the brightness of the rich, with Streep’s Ellen awash in browns and greys, while Anozie’s short story has a vibrancy that masks the narrative’s darkness. There are some neat visual touches throughout, like the aforementioned burning bush (biblical allusions anyone?), the sequence where the lakeboat capsizes that has Inception-esque overtones and a late moment when the two main characters have a spell in a Panamanian jail, that slowly turns into just another country club outing through the application of fancy jackets and a stroll off the sound stage.
You get the unmistakable feeling, viewing The Laundromat, that you are looking at something that had to get out quickly, that was rushed to the point that the final product is disjointed and hard to follow. If Soderbergh had a bit more time, perhaps the seams could have been erased, but as it is The Laundromat is a ill-feeling affair, bolstered by strong performances from its cast and some great script-work, but let down regards pacing, narrative flow and a confused delivery of a political message from the director. Some good, some bad then: Soderbergh remains a quality director and his latest string of offerings have been unique additions to film’s canon, but The Laundromat is probably destined to be one of his least remembered efforts. Partly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).