The Laundromat

Year: 2019
Production Co: Anonymous Content
Studio: Netflix
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Scott Z Burns
Cast: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer, Sharon Stone, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, Matthias Schoenaerts, Rosalind Chao, Nonso Anozie

When it was revealed a few years back Meryl Streep was appearing in a Panama Papers drama directed by Steven Soderbergh, I couldn't have been more excited. What a weird and disappointing experience it's turned out to be.

In Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation, the fictional drama based on a non fiction tell all book about the evils of the fast food industry, Greg Kinnear played an executive at a fast food chain who starts to discover some of the dark practices his company uses to bring ultra-cheap burgers and fries to the populace.

For awhile it seemed like the story was going to be about him and his crusade to put things right, but there were so many other subplots and asides the movie leaves his character about three quarters of the way through and never finds the time to revisit him to see what he found out.

The Laundromat has the same problem. We should never complain that a movie turns out to be different from what the trailer makes it seem – God knows we have enough of a problem with trailers giving away the whole plot these days.

But I thought it was going to be about put-upon retiree housewife (Meryl Streep), ground up and spat out by the system of international finance tax havens that maintains the yawning chasm between the haves and the have nots and who decides to fight back, two Greek chorus-like figures giving context straight to camera in the oddly-accented Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas.

Instead, Oldman and Banderas play not just actual characters but real people – Mossak and Fonseca respectively, the directors behind one of the biggest tax haven service firms in the world, headquartered in Panama (a real company with a still-existing website proclaiming its innocence, even though both directors were charged and convicted).

They spend most of the movie talking direct to the viewer in a series of bizarre vignettes, explaining the story of money as a system of barter, how stacked the deck is in favour of the rich and how labyrinthine the financial system is by design so as to exclude most people from reaping its benefits. As the film progresses they become more traditional characters, portrayed as clueless and panicky as their business and what it does is increasingly threatened with exposure.

Meanwhile, Ellen (Streep) and her husband (James Cromwell) are aboard a tour boat on a Washington lake when a freak wave overturns it, injuring several passengers and killing him. Later trying to get on with her life and enjoy the money she expects from the insurance, Ellen is shocked to discover there's not nearly as much as she thought. At the same time, the tour boat operators discover that because of some dodgy dealing that's ultimately traced back to Mossack Fonseca, they're not insured at all.

So with nothing but an address in the West Indies for the company that does the insurance, Ellen goes there, finding nothing but a PO Box and the guy (Jeffrey Wright) who runs the business dodging and passing the buck on the insurance claims.

We then leave Ellen and her quest to follow the guy on a busines trip to Miami where he's accosted by police, informing his waiting wife he's a bigamist with another family that we've already seen back in the West Indies.

Later on there's a side story about a filthy rich African man in California who's having an affair with his daughter's college roommate and tries to pay his own daughter off for her silence. Then we visit a rich Chinese woman using a slimy British lawyer to launder money who poisons him to protect her secrets.

Somehow the paper trails all lead back to Mossack and Fonseca, and we keep cutting back to them, delivering their comic asides on the history of money or playing themselves in their rapidly crumbling world as each chapter of the story unfolds to reveal yet another dirty trick of the moneyed class.

It all ends with an even weirder aside as a minor character we've visited here and there reveals herself to be Streep in disguise, removing bits of the costume and makeup as she crosses a soundstage, ending her speech about how tax havens like Mossack Fonseca are still widespread and demanding campaign finance reform in the US. As the credits started to roll I'm sure I looked like Shrek and Donkey in the picture the ride at Duloc takes of them, an unmistakable expression of 'WTF' on my face.

As a rule I love Soderbergh as a director because he always does something different, and this is one of his most experimental films, playing very fast and loose with structure, pacing, drama and character. He's too good a filmmaker for it all not to have a cohesive point, but that point's hidden under layers of stylistic obfuscation to the extent it's illegible.

His talent at pointing a camera at action is beyond doubt after all these years, but The Laundromat feels like it doesn't know where it's going or where it wants to be. And even aside from that, talling a story that should make us all as angry as any documentary about climate change or political corruption in such a jaunty, light-hearted way feels like an aesthetic misstep.

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