The Laundromat (2019) ☆☆(2/4): How they laundered money

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Steven Soderbergh’s new film “The Laundromat”, which was released on Netflix on last Friday, does not inform me much beyond what I learned a bit from a number of newspaper articles on the Panama Papers, a massive amount of leaked documents which led to the disclosure of a huge and complex network of money laundering revolving around one Panamanian law firm in 2016. Although I was occasionally amused by the game efforts from some of its impressive main cast members, the movie merely hurls one bit of information after another without any focus and momentum to hold our attention, and I found myself more frustrated and confused in the end.

At first, the movie starts with Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), a middle-aged American lady who recently lost her dear husband due to a horrible boat accident but then is notified of something quite outrageous. She expects that she is soon going to receive a considerable amount of money from insurance companies, but, alas, those insurance companies supposed to pay the money to her turn out to be connected with offshore shell companies out there, and it looks like there is nothing she can do about this infuriating circumstance.

As she tries to pursue the origin of her financial problem, the movie shows us the other end of her financial problem via Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), two senior partners of a Panamanian law firm named Mossack Fonseca. They directly explain to us on how they have helped those numerous rich people around the world avoiding tax, and one of the most absurd moments in the film comes from one of their employees who has functioned as the chief executive of 20,000 offshore shell companies.

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One of such people associated with Mossack and Fonesca is Malchus Irvin Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright), a corrupt accountant who has managed a certain shell company associated with Mossack and Foneca in the West Indies. All he has to do is signing his name on a bunch of documents at which he is not particularly interested in looking, but then he senses a trouble coming to him when he happens to come across Martin. Although he manages to evade Martin and then run away to Florida, it soon turns out that the situation has already been way over his head.

Meanwhile, things are getting a bit complicated for Mossack and Foneca due to a particular client of theirs, who turns out to be a very notorious criminal in Mexico. They certainly regret over this serious matter, but, as they admit to us, they never ask anything while always providing their dirty service to many clients around the world, and that is how they have been able to gather a considerable amount of wealth over more than 20 years.

And we see how one of their big clients takes care of a big private problem thanks to their service. When this client in question happens to be seen by his daughter while he is having an affair with a certain person she knows, he offers her the ownership of one of his shell companies, which is supposed to have 20 million dollars. After some hesitation, she comes to accept her father’s offer, but, of course, it later turns out that there is a loophole for him just in case.

As busily juggling these and other elements in the story, the screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, which is adapted from Jake Bernstein’s nonfiction book “Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite”, attempts to inform us as much as it can, but it unfortunately fails to draw our attention due to its scattershot storytelling. While Martin initially seems to be the center of the story, her plotline is eventually put aside as the story hurriedly jumps from one spot to another, and the one associated with Mossack and Foneca feels mostly superficial even though it is supposed to show their, uh, complicated position.

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As usual, Soderbergh did a slick and competent job on the whole while also working as the unofficial editor and cinematographer of the movie, but his lean and economical approach often clashes with the dense, complex aspects of the subject of the film. We are demanded to fill gaps and connect dots between individual moments, but the movie does not help or guide us much, and I must say that I come to appreciate again the achievement of “The Big Short” (2015), which does a far more entertaining presentation of its complex financial subject in comparison.

While Meryl Streep is reliable as usual, the movie does not utilize her considerable effort on the screen much, and that is why her last scene is not as dramatically effective as intended. Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas are surely having a fun with their deliberate overacting, but their characters remain to be flat caricatures who are sometimes annoying. In case of the other notable main cast members of the film including Sharon Stone, David Schwimmer, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeffrey Wright, Larry Wilmore, Robert Patrick, Nonso Anozie, and James Cromwell, they do not have much to do from the beginning, and it is really disappointing to see them merely coming and then going without leaving much impression.

In conclusion, “The Laundromat” is a messy misfire in many aspects, and I would rather recommend you Soderbergh’s previous Netflix film “Higher Flying Bird” (2019) instead. Although I did not know much about its subject, that film intrigued and enlightened me a lot in contrast to “The Laundromat”, and, to be frank with you, I feel an urge to revisit it now.

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