A star-studded cautionary tale about financial malfeasance that’s unfortunately more style than substance.
IMDB Synopsis: In this The Big Short-esque dramedy based on the Mossack Fonseca scandal, a cast of characters investigate an insurance fraud, chasing leads to a pair of a flamboyant Panama City law partners exploiting the world’s financial system.
If you’re looking for a hard hitting exposé about the Panama Papers and stunning downfall of law firm Mossack Fonseca (a la Spotlight or the upcoming The Report)… the The Laundromat is not that. It is, however, an entertaining look at the circumstances leading to the 2016 bombshell story—tax evasion, bribery, shell corporations, fraud, corruption on a global scale. The latest from director Steven Soderberg uses a broken up vignettes to explain these concepts in a way that’s palatable and entertaining to a broad audience (Netflix, amirite?), but doesn’t really delve the importance of the Panama Papers leak, the fallout, or the financial ramifications.
The audience guide through the movie are Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), the now-convicted founders of the law firm implicated in the Panama Papers. The vet actors are garish and clearly dining out on the hammy-ness of the characters, played as omniscient, hindsight-is-2020 types. But rather than explain either the Panama Papers leak or the journalistic cooperation and diligence that went into breaking the story, the narrators explain the themes and concepts around it. So rather than learn much about the Panama Papers, we get two celebrated actors explaining how the concepts of tax avoidance, bribery, and shell corporations benefit the wealthy, and are somewhat related to the case at hand.
The movie is broken out into five distinct acts: The Meek are Screwed, It’s Just Shells, Tell a Friend, Bribery 101, and Make a Killing. Each act is loosely based on a true event that roughly tie the fictional characters to Mossack Fonseca storyline, while simultaneously adding emotional heft and a breathe of levity to the story. The only through-line is Ellen Martin (an always fantastic Meryl Streep), as her character encounters the various themes as she investigates insurance fraud after suffering a tragedy early in the film.
Ultimately, The Laundromat is less of a journalistic or financial crimes procedural and more of an entertaining, albeit cautionary allegory. it doesn’t reveal any grand truths about the world (rich people sometimes do bad things to stay rich, the system is rigged against the little man, etc. etc.). It won’t make you feel better about the world, nor does it inspire to take any action. Soderberg has clearly infused his narrative with style, but unfortunately, that’s all it is. Style and no substance.
Highlights: While the movie might not work as a whole, the performances are the highlight. Aforementioned Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas take a dip in the River of Ham. Meryl Streep is always incredible. Jeffrey Wright puts in a serviceable performance. And there’s a fun cameo from Will Forte and Chris Parnell.
MVP: Probably the duo of Oldman and Banderas. They are having so much fun, and are believable as unrepentant financial criminals.
Should you see it: It’s on Netflix, so there’s worse ways to kill an hour and a half. But don’t expect to take away much. 5/10.
Director: Steven Soderberg
Studio: Netflix // Original release date: September 27, 2019