Review: The Laundromat

By Nicole Ackman

Steven Soderbergh’s latest offering, “The Laundromat” (2019), is supposedly about the events and circumstances that surrounded the Panama Papers that were released in 2016, yet it manages to teach its audience very little. The movie, directed by Soderbergh, adapts a non-fiction book into a story that isn’t entirely narrative or even episodic. It’s a disjointed and wacky film that feels lacking in a central focus that attempts to illustrate the different types of corruption that the Panama Papers shed light upon. However, even a good performance by Meryl Streep can’t salvage this film. 

The movie states that it is “based on actual secrets.” Streep plays Ellen, a woman whose husband is killed in a tragic accident only for her to find out that there are issues with her insurance because of the company’s links to a corrupt Panama law firm. Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas play the two lawyers who run the firm and function as the film’s narrators as it proceeds to examine a string of unconnected people who are affected by their fraud. The time stamps on the screen every few scenes alert savvy viewers that the unveiling of the Panama Papers is lurking around the corner.

“The movie, directed by Soderbergh…[is] a disjointed and wacky film that feels lacking in a central focus that attempts to illustrate the different types of corruption that the Panama Papers shed light upon.”

For those who don’t know, the Panama Papers were the over eleven million documents that were leaked in 2016 that revealed details about the offshore business entities owned by wealthy people and public officials. The documents were taken from Mossack Fonseca, a law firm and corporate service provider in Panama. While these holdings were legal, it was found that the shell corporations owned by Mossack Fonseca were connected to tax evasion and fraud, amongst other nefarious practices. 

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Ultimately, the worst part of the film is its faulty screenplay by Scott Z. Burns. (Burns’s film, “The Report,” comes to Amazon in November and is a much better offering.) There are so many side plots, that it’s easy to question at times if you’re even watching the same movie that you started. The film abandons the emotionally compelling story part of the way through about a woman who cannot get the insurance she deserves after losing her husband. While Streep appears in snippets throughout, the focus is shifted to the seemingly random vignettes. Furthermore, the film is structured by being divided into five secrets — but those secrets don’t actually let the audience in on anything. 

“Meryl Streep delivers a good performance as the widowed and angry Ellen…However, she and the film have come under some controversy for her secondary role that she plays…”

The film continually breaks the fourth wall, though it somehow doesn’t make its narrative feel more real. In fact, when the movie eventually shares from real footage of newscasters and President Obama reacting to the release of the papers, I was surprised to remember that this was what it had been building to. There is certainly a fascinating story to be told about the Panama Papers; this film just doesn’t do it. 

Meryl Streep delivers a good performance as the widowed and angry Ellen. It’s not anything near career-best for her but it is an interesting role and she is certainly a reliable actress. However, she and the film have come under some controversy for her secondary role that she plays: a Latina woman named Elena, helped by a bad wig, thick accent, and hip padding. In addition to the potentially offensive nature of this character, it simply feels unnecessary. 

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The other performances are similarly good, though none of them get enough screen time to truly sink in. David Schwimmer and Mattias Schoenaerts both feel underutilized. Oldman and Banderas are hilarious as the lawyers, Jurgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, and do make the film entertaining with their segments interspersed throughout as they speak directly to the audience. However, Oldman’s bad German accent is so distracting from what he’s actually saying that it may be worth putting subtitles on. 

“The Laundromat” is disappointing in how it squanders its potential and clearly thinks it’s making a grand statement about corruption and the privileged but ends up simply feeling disjointed and confused.”

Despite the shaky screenplay and ill-executed concept, the film is very well made. The cinematography and editing, both done by Soderbergh, are good and the film’s graphics are nice to look at, even if they’re not particularly effective in teaching anything. I was struck by how colorful the film is and how well-differentiated the vignettes are in their styling, even if that ultimately makes them feel like they don’t fit together. 

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“The Laundromat” is only an hour and a half long and is available on Netflix, so it still may be worth a watch. It is certainly entertaining and has a great beginning. It clearly plays off of the style of movies like “The Big Short” (2015), but unfortunately is nowhere near its clarity, thoroughness, or artistry. “The Laundromat” is disappointing in how it squanders its potential and clearly thinks it’s making a grand statement about corruption and the privileged but ends up simply feeling disjointed and confused.

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars 

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