“Based on actual secrets.” Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat opens up with this statement, identifying the film’s ties to the 2016 Panama Papers scandal in the United States. Loosely based on Pulitzer prize-winning Jake Bernstein’s Secrecy World, The Laundromat seeks to highlight the epidemic of tax evasion, off-shore bank accounts, and shell companies.
The Laundromat is directed Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns, who previously collaborated on 2013’s Side Effects. Being familiar with Soderbergh’s work, you can imagine the tone and direction he’d choose to take while tackling such a complex subject. The Laundromat is weighed down by trying to unpack the complex intricacies of which the people at the top of the ladder exploiting a broken system to hide their money and avoid paying taxes. Soderbergh injects his tongue-in-cheek humour that he’s known for to alleviate some of the tedious explanations the film doles out, yet the results left me feeling a bit scattered.
The film attempts to break down high-level, complicated financial concepts, in a similar fashion as The Big Short for the general audience. As discussions of fake companies funnelling cash from one entity to the next aren’t the most exciting conversations to hear, Soderbergh placed Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as our ushers throughout the film. Oldman and Banderas take on the role of Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, heads of Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian firm responsible for helping to create over 210,000 shell companies. The duo act as the film’s narrator, continually breaking the fourth wall, while providing stylish commentary on the evolution and corruption in the world of tax evasion.
To kick off each chapter, Mossack and Fonseca do their very best to catch us up to speed. In their stylish introduction, the duo runs the audience through the origins of cash, credit, and everything in between. However, the film quickly becomes heavy-handed in the divulgation of information. Regardless of their performances and charm, the base subject of the film is a lot to digest in a short 95 minutes.
Rather than retelling the events that led up to the Panama Papers story from breaking, The Laundromat is broken into five separate vignettes. Each chapter overlaps in some fashion, and build off one another to shine a spotlight on the corruption stemming from Mossack Fonseca. The most gratifying story, and perhaps most memorable has Academy Award-winning Meryl Streep front and centre. Streep plays Ellen Martin, a soft-spoken, and timid woman, recently widowed after a boating accident takes the life of her husband. After discovering that her deceased’s life insurance has been compromised, she begins to follow a trail towards the source.
This leads her to Jeffery Wright’s character, Malchus Irvin Boncamper, who has his own story to tell. Just as we’re expected to follow Streep throughout the film as she weaves through the web of lies and deceit, the film takes a hard right turn, aiming the focus on newly introduced characters from across the globe. We’re given a glimpse into the life of Charles, played by Nonso Anozie, a millionaire tangled in keeping his financials afloat after doing wrong by his wife and daughter. On the tail end of this narrative, we travel east to China and see Matthias Schoenaerts’ character attempt to make a deal with the wife of a Chinese politician. Thrown into the mix are a few unsuspecting faces and surprising cameos. Soderbergh has put together quite the dynamic cast. Aside from Oldman and Banderas, we’re never able to truly connect with anyone character.
Each chapter never overstays its welcome. They all fringe on providing some comedic beats––some leaning heavily on the meta side––that for the most part land. This often causes a bit of a contrast as the film’s darker subject matter makes up the bulk of the film’s tone. While the film comfortably settles into a place where it’s not afraid to address the audience, the closing moments rip down any remaining bricks from the fourth wall to recite a monologue from the Panama Papers’ whistleblower, known as “John Doe”. These closing minutes pack a punch as Soderbergh lays his messaging regarding humanity’s greed on thick. The Laundromat at no point attempts to give rhyme or reason to why things are the way they are. Instead, Soderbergh highlights the many facets that go into a corrupt system, built on exploiting loopholes to keep the wealthy in a place of power, and stepping on the desperate along the way.
Although the effectiveness in Soderbergh’s approach regarding the Panama Papers may be in question, The Laundromat does bring up several key issues worth talking about. Oldman and Banderas’ enthralling performances were enough to keep me captivated from chapter to chapter, even though the two played the wormiest of worms. Streep by far stole the show but unfortunately wasn’t given enough screentime.
You can catch The Laundromat in select theatres. On October 18th, the film will release on Netflix.