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25 September 2019

The Laundromat: an aggressively wacky take on the Panama Papers

This star-studded, finance-made-fun approach was patronising in The Big Short three years ago and it hasn’t improved with age.  

By Ryan Gilbey

It is now six years since Steven Soderbergh, then only 50, announced his retirement from cinema, and two years since he decided he wasn’t retiring after all and made Logan Lucky. (He has already followed that with the thriller Unsane and the sports drama High Flying Bird, as well as producing Ocean’s 8, a female spin-off from his smash-hit Ocean’s trilogy.) Retirement for him was about expressing dissatisfaction with the way things were done. “The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me,” he said at the time. “I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere.” In his latest picture, he goes searching for that grammar. And if it remains unfound by the end, then perhaps that is fitting for a movie about the undiscoverable: the money hidden in shell companies, partially uncovered in 2016 through the Panama Papers.

The Laundromat is the film of the book of the leak that exposed one of the crimes of our age. Scott Z Burns’s screenplay, adapted from Jake Bernstein’s 2017 bestseller Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite, places at its centre the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which, until the scandal forced it to close, was one of the world’s largest providers of offshore financial services, counting among its clients business people, politicians, oligarchs, drug kingpins and human traffickers. The movie begins by declaring that what follows is “based on actual secrets”, then traces the shock-waves and ramifications from the largely legal business of wealth concealment. It follows the money, but also the blood.

The structure resembles one of those portmanteau films popular in the horror genre. Tales from the Crypt had Ralph Richardson as the Crypt Keeper linking each ghoulish story, whereas our smiling, insidious guides through The Laundromat are Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas). Dressed in tuxedos and brandishing Martinis, they wander through a series of film sets explaining directly to camera everything from the origins of money to the workings of their sordid enterprise.

As they stroll through a mock-up of a prehistoric scene, a group of cavemen are struggling to light a fire. The black bars floating over the cavemen’s eyes so as not to incriminate them bear no relation to the action and hardly even qualify as a joke, but they do give fair warning that the tone of the film will be aggressively wacky, as if the broadness of Oldman and Banderas, and the smart-alec chapter headings (“Secret 1: The Meek are Screwed”), didn’t already scream student revue. This star-studded, finance-made-fun approach was patronising in The Big Short three years ago and it hasn’t improved with age.

Each frivolous touch designed to make the financial trickery go down more smoothly has the effect of weakening the dramatic material. The larky tone means that none of it sticks, none of it matters. One vignette concerns a businessman (Nonso Anozie) who uses bearer shares (owned by whoever holds the certificate) to bribe his daughter into keeping shtum about his infidelities; another takes in murder and a spot of organ-trafficking among the Chinese elite. Jeffrey Wright gives a nice study in complacency as a bigamous accountant paid to be the signatory of thousands of companies that don’t exist. And in the only thread that runs from beginning to end, Meryl Streep plays Ellen Martin, who is widowed after a boat accident and surprised to find herself following a paper trail from the insurers all the way to a company that is nothing more than a post-office box on the Caribbean island of Nevis. 

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In casting Streep also as one of Mossack Fonseca’s Panamanian employees, Soderbergh is paying tribute to his mentor, the late Mike Nichols, who put her in several guises in his TV adaptation of Angels in America. He could also be trying to evoke the impenetrable layers of Mossack Fonseca’s operations, though the scene in which Streep as office worker hangs up the phone on Streep as Ellen seems to suggest that the put-upon widow is her own worst enemy, which can’t have been the intention.

The double role provides a chance for Streep to raid the dressing-up box while road-testing a comedy accent. She also gets to open fire on the office in an action-movie fantasy interlude that serves no purpose other than to amplify the zaniness. Her final scene, in which she speaks as herself to camera, will take some beating as the worst moment in her long career, comparable in its fawning sincerity to the end of every Mike Yarwood show (“And this is me”) while displaying parodic levels of simple-minded liberal outrage.

Viewers will switch off the film feeling marginally better-informed (and I say “switch off” because most people will see this Netflix production on TV rather than during its brief cinema release) but also infinitely more irritated than they were before. The trade-off is ours to make, and it won’t affect Soderbergh’s reputation either way. He’s already shot his next film (Let Them All Talk, another comedy with Streep) and the multiple disappointments of The Laundromat will soon come out in the wash. 

The Laundromat (15)
dir: Steven Soderbergh

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This article appears in the 25 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace