When Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, and Meryl Streep are combined in a cast and directed by Steven Soderbergh, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a good film. Apparently it was too much to ask of Soderbergh’s new Netflix original, “The Laundromat,” however.
While watching the film, my mind tried to trick me into thinking I was simply not seeing what made “The Laundromat” a great movie.
Soderbergh tried his best to make “The Laundromat” clever by making it a dark satire, made up of a series of vignettes, drawn together with two unconventional narrators. But the end result was a garbled mess and an incoherent narrative with an obnoxiously-pointed political statement.
“The Laundromat” is a loose exploration of the 2016 Panama Papers, 11.5 million leaked documents containing the attorney-client information of thousands of U.S. offshore financial accounts and entities. These papers were taken from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, a corporate service provider and one of the biggest providers of offshore financial services. But in 2015, whistleblower “John Doe” leaked the papers showing that some of Mossack Fonseca’s shell companies were being used for illegal activity — mainly fraud, tax evasion, and evasion of international sanctions.
“The Laundromat” tries to sum up the Panama Papers and generally explain things like trust funds, tax evasion, shell corporations, offshore accounts, and insurance fraud. Soderbergh tried to make the story and colorfully odd and fresh by making Jurgen Mossack (Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Banderas) the narrators of the vignettes that he threw together. Each vignette is a short example of the different financial services that Mossack Fonseca provided, showing how easily something like an offshore entity, which is perfectly legal, can be used for illegal purposes.
Streep is the widow in one of these vignettes who becomes a victim of insurance fraud when her husband tragically drowns in a boating accident and she cannot collect the full settlement. She begins poking around only to find that United Re-Insurance Group is a shell corporation (thanks to Mossack Fonseca), neck deep in shady business and running shell corporations for some questionable people. From there, Mossack Fonseca unravels as corruption and illegal activity is uncovered.
As the movie progresses, it exploring other vignettes that could be interesting, but altogether turn into a jumbled mess that eventually is numb and boring.
Soderbergh is known for his experimentation in movies, and the general idea and goal of “The Laundromat” could have been a good one. Back in 2015, the film “The Big Short” did a great job of taking complex financial schemes and explaining them in an accessible, interesting, and dramatic form. The Laundromat could have done the same, and maybe in an even more interesting way, since Soderbergh’s approach to storytelling is always colorful and creative. That’s why it’s even more of a disappointment: It could have been so good.
But aside from the ramshackle nature of the storyline, the movie’s political statement beats the audience over the head. Even if you agree with the political message, it’s not comfortable having it drilled into your eyeballs throughout the entire movie. When Streep ends the movie with an impassioned monologue about how corrupt American finance is and how much it needs reform, it’s hard to care. Soderbergh tried to evoke outrage at a broken and corrupt financial system, but by the end he’s shot the audience in the head with his political statement gun so many times that the audience is numb.
It’s a real misfortune that so much talent and experience could be gathered into one movie and yet still manage to be a disappointment. “The Laundromat” had the potential to be so good, but then fell on its face.