'The Laundromat': Film Review | Venice 2019

Sex, lies & off-shore accounts.
9/27/2019

Steven Soderbergh's dark comedy about the lead-up to and fallout from the Panama Papers leak stars Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas.

After taking stock of the business side of basketball earlier this year in Netflix's High Flying Bird, Steven Soderbergh has far bigger financial fish to fry in The Laundromat, an eccentric, slap-happy account of shenanigans down Panama way. The panoramic approach taken by the director and writer Scott Z. Burns makes for a wide variety of bizarre encounters among people you'd never expect to see in the same movie, but the arch comic tone clicks only part-time, never coalescing into an assured sardonic style. After multiple big festival bows and a limited theatrical run beginning Sept. 27, this mischievous outing will hit Netflix on Oct. 18.

Any film that might expect an audience to truly grasp the intricacies of off-shore tax havens, shell companies and what's legal and illegal in international banking would no doubt be asking too much. But it's easy for a dramatist to portray the little guy or, in this case, an older woman getting screwed by the evil profiteers who work in glass towers and live in mansions, and for the big shots to spew gobbledygook and twisty rationales for their dubious enterprises. Or, as an early title announces, what we're about to see is “based on actual secrets,” ones that burst into international headlines with the leak of the “Panama Papers” in 2015 and were then analyzed in much greater detail in Jake Bernstein's 2017 book Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite.

Fast talking is what Jurgen Mossack (the son of a Nazi Air Force officer) and Ramon Fonseca, real-life guys played respectively by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, periodically do to somewhat tortured effect throughout the film. In direct-to-camera commentary delivered with “What, me worry?” inflections, they justify their behavior in a high-minded manner meant to be darkly amusing but that actually proves increasingly annoying as things proceed. These guys do protest too much.

But then there's the little people, the trusting ones, the suckers who are born everyday and are forever at the mercy of confident fast-talkers and sales pitch types who can put anything over. The central example of such on display in Burns' punchy, episodic screenplay is Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), a nice, chatty lady of a certain age whose pleasant Lake George vacation is shockingly turned into tragedy when a tour boat sinks and her husband (James Cromwell) drowns along with 20 others. As she endures the shock and eventually seeks a financial settlement, she is sent down a rabbit hole of frustration that would have the White Rabbit himself muttering, “Oh, dear!”

With the money she thinks she has coming to her, Ellen believes she's acquired a big Vegas apartment with a special view, but she's aced out of that by an agent played in a brief turn by Sharon Stone. Setback after setback and frustration after frustration follow in short order, some of it expressed in direct address to the camera. On a sleepy island in the Caribbean, she tracks down the alleged address of the company responsible for her financial distress, only to find a building full of P.O. Boxes.

Although nothing in life has prepared Ellen to assume the mantle of international financial sleuth, she persists in her effort to get to the bottom of what begins to take on the dimensions of a gigantic shell game. One cannot deny that the characters she encounters are colorful and occasionally amusing. But Ellen finds nothing but non-accountability all along the sordid, watery trail which has tributaries all over the world.

Despite the filmmaker's obvious smarts and oft-proven skills, there's a kind of off-putting effrontery about Soderbergh's approach here that rather sours the whole experience. The tone is brittle, the attitude arch, the performances by a savvy and diverse cast uneven. The most memorable turn comes from Nonso Anozie, who first worked with the director on The Informant! and here plays a physically imposing, enormously wealthy Southern California man who brutally sets his spoiled teenage daughter straight about a few things.

As is her wont and all-but-inevitable way, Streep keeps things interesting as a woman whose last big chapter in life turns on two spins of a dime from blissful retirement with her mate to confounding victimhood to determined truth-and-justice seeker, albeit one without the usual puffed-up Hollywood sanctimoniousness. Tonally unsteady as the film may be, it still seeks justice in the same way the director's Erin Brockovich did two decades ago, with a woman leading a lonely fight against shady, obfuscating tricksters.

Throughout, the more the film tells it straight and true and the less it trades on absurdist and smarmy comedy, the better. Soderbergh and Burns seemingly wanted to emphasize the sheer outrageousness of the scam and have a little fun with it in the bargain, but their satirical aim ultimately doesn't measure up to the sharpness of their ambitions. 

Visually, the film is a further bump up from what director-DP Soderbergh achieved with the RED digital camera on High Flying Bird.

Production companies: Grey Matter, Sugar 23, Anonymous Content, Topics Studios
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Melissa Rauch, Jeff Michalski, Jane Morris, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer, Cristela Alonzo, Larry Clarke, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, Nonso Anozie, Larry Wilmore, Jessica Allain, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Matthias Schoenarts, Rosalind Chao, Kunjue Li, Ming Lo, James Cromwell, Sharon Stone
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns, based on
Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite by Jake Bernstein
Producers: Lawrence Grey, Gregory Jacobs, Michael Sugar, Scott Z. Burns
Executive producers: Michael Polaire, Douglas Urbanski, Ben Everard, Michael Bloom, Adam Pincus, Jake Bernstein
Director of photography: Peter Andrews
Production designer: Howard Cummings
Costume designer: Ellen Mirojnick
Editor: Mary Ann Bernard
Music: David Holmes
Casting: Carmen Cuba
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Competition)