Where has all the money gone? That’s what Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) wants to know. She just lost her husband in a tragic accident on a tour guide boat and in the wake of such a miserable turn of events has been informed that the company behind the boat her significant other perished on has lousy insurance that won’t be giving her any kind of pay-out to help soothe her turmoil. Who could be behind such a scam? Well, that would be Jurgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), two men running an insurance company that operates numerous shell companies that allow the wealthiest people on the planet to keep their money secure and free of being taxed. It benefits the powerful but for everyday individuals like Ellen Martin, it only produces nightmares.
The Laundromat, a new movie directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns, is all about the corruption that would eventually comprise the famous leaked documents of the Panama Papers. To explore just how wide-ranging the consequences of this financial trickery was, Burns doesn’t just focus on Ellen Martin. The Laundromat sometimes resembles an anthology film in how it features a number of sequences with stand-alone storylines and characters, most memorable of which is one centering around a man named Charles (Nonso Anozie) trying to cover up his extramarital affair from his daughter. Through these assorted segments, we get to see how the devious tactics of Mossack and Fonseca kept on putting money in their pockets and adversely affected everyday people.
This story structure also allows Soderbergh to cut loose as both a director and cinematographer since each of the standalone segments are filmed in a different manner. One focusing on nefarious banker Maywood (Matthias Schoenaerts) trying to intimidate two clients in China, for instance, is filmed in a narrower aspect ratio compared to the rest of the film while a brief digression to a seedy tavern in Mexico featuring Will Forte and Chris Parnell is captured through a fish-eye lens. The primary framing device, which involves the turmoil of Ellen Martin as well as scenes of Mossack and Fonseca breaking the fourth wall to explain aspects of their job to the viewer, has its own distinct visual traits, most notable of which are transitions between shots that seem to have been ripped out of the 1970s.
Between all the storylines and differing visual techniques, there’s clearly a lot to be offered in The Laundromat. So, then, why does it feel a bit on the emptier side once all is said and done? Partly this is because of how Burns’ script does feel torn between being a traditional narrative and being an anthology movie. The segments showcasing the various ways corruption manifests and impacts people can be fun, but trying to pull those off while still trying to do a conventional three-act feature film means that both the individual self-contained plotlines and the broader narrative suffer. Ellen Martin is the biggest victim of this problem, she vanishes from the script for prolonged periods of time and that makes it difficult to get consistently emotionally engaged in her plight.
Either confine her sequences to one stand-alone segment or make her a more consistent part of the proceedings. As is, her storyline gets undercut by how often it’s pushed to the side in favor of more explanations of how offshore companies work. A sequence early on where Ellen Martin tells her grandkids in a Les Vegas hotel roo how she met their grandfather is a really powerful intimate scene that Streep just nails as a performer, but it’s one drawback is how it reinforces that, for the rest of the film, Martin has nowhere near as much to-do character-wise. Focusing solely on her story or making her story one of many in an anthology film format could have worked just fine, trying to do both leads to some problems.
Another issue is that a little bit of Mossack and Fonseca explaining in great detail about the world of shell companies goes a long way. Despite the fact that the suave vocals of Banderas are always a treat to hear, their scenes of talking directly to the viewer about their backstories and methods do end up feeling repetitive after a while. That having been said, their scenes do yield their fair share of amusing moments thanks to the quietly absurd performances delivered by Oldman and Banderas. Even in the most meandering parts of their characters screentime, these two performers managed to get me to cackle. Come to think of it, the whole cast of The Laundromat tends to pick up the slack whenever the script for this movie begins to get stuck in an overly lecture-y rut.
When you stack up your cast with so many gifted character actors (Jeffrey Wright! David Schwimmer! James Cromwell!), you’re bound to get some great results and the amusing performances of The Laundromat certainly turn out to be the best part of the production, which still has plenty to offer despite a messy script, including a climactic speech given by Ellen Martin with some unexpectedly politically relevant lines of dialogue that sent my audience into understandable gasps. It’s probably the weakest Steven Soderbergh movies of the 2010s, but The Laundromat filmmaking and performances make this a fine diversion for fans of Soderbergh and members of the cast, though viewers outside of those two categories might find it understandably hard to get invested in all the endless yammering about shell company minutiae.