As has been and forever will be, filmmaking is more alchemy than chemistry. The Laundromat is proof.
A hugely important and underserviced subject (the Panama Papers) gets tackled by one of the best modern directors (Steven Soderbergh) and arguably the greatest actress of all time (Meryl Streep). Yet, somehow, the end result is just-ever-so-barely on the right side of okay. As beloved fictional theologian and philosopher Mike LaFontaine (Fred Willard) once mournfully contemplated in A Mighty Wind: “Wha happened?”
Admittedly, 11 million documents that detail how wealthy dinguses around the world use shell corporations to horde their riches in offshore dungeons like dragons who have Jeffrey Epstein’s phone number doesn’t scream “Adapt me!” Instead of opting for an easily-followed narrative interrupted by dense economic explanations, writer Scott Z. Burns went for a series of dispassionate interlocking narratives interrupted by dense economic explanations. Does it help that Gary Oldman provides part of those dense economic explanations in an intentionally preposterous accent? It absolutely does.
What doesn’t help is that the stories neither complement one another nor settle into a comprehensive tone. Streep plays Ellen Martin, a woman widowed after a boat tour accident. This leads her to investigate the shady insurance company who refuses to adequately compensate for her husband’s aquatic manslaughter. The law firm of Mossack (Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) help guide said shady insurance company and tens of thousands of others. The pair serve as the shameless, goofy narrators as the film skips around to show some of the employees at their firm and how other clients manipulate the system. It then wraps up with an attempt at poignancy that is so unintentionally hilarious, even Meryl Streep can’t pull it off. That is…almost impressive…
Legally, you can’t talk about The Laundromat without mentioning The Big Short. This is because they’re the only two films to ever attempt to didactically vomit crucial financial information at the masses while attempting to win an Oscar. Well-intended though they may be, if these two are the best examples of this blossoming subgenre, may the unhappy couple never engage in a menage et trois. It is infuriating that the Panama Papers fizzled out of our cultural consciousness faster than a fidget spinner. But not everything can or should be a narrative feature film. Documentaries exist for a reason, and it’s not just to give student filmmakers something to do other than angrily comment on Internet articles.
Not that Soderbergh and Burns tackle off more than they can chew, but the film’s financial lesson begins with the invention of the very concept of money. A better version of this film keeps the flippant tone, focuses on a contained part of the criminal scheming, and stays only with Ellen’s story. This is not just because “spend more time on Meryl Streep” is literally never the wrong choice, but because the only reason to even turn the Panama Papers into a non-documentary is to humanize it. The Laundromat had one of the best humans ever positioned to do just that almost suds-ed it all up. Glub, glub, glub.
Grade = C+