Review: The Laundromat (TIFF 2019)

ARTNEWSPRESS: PLOT: A woman’s (Meryl Streep) investigation into insurance fraud leads her to a never-ending series of shell companies set up by two Panama City law partners (Gary Oldman & Antonio Banderas).

REVIEW: THE LAUNDROMAT is director Steven Soderbergh’s long-awaited Panama Papers expose, but those of us expecting a sprawling drama in the vein of TRAFFIC will have to make do with this short, mostly comic look at the issue. It’s not quite as amusing as it seems to think it is, but some interesting, sobering moments ultimately make it worthwhile.

Meryl Streep’s character, Ellen Martin, is our way into this world, being a recent retiree looking forward to spending the rest of her days with her adoring husband (James Cromwell). The plan goes tragically awry when a boating disaster leaves her a widow, something which should have gotten her a big insurance payout. It’s here that she realizes that the financially strapped business owners (David Schwimmer and Robert Patrick) foolishly re-insured their business with a company that turns out to be a scam, leaving them utterly destitute and unable to payout.

While without the payout, Streep’s character is still financially well off thanks to shrewd planning by her husband, so she uses the money to start a globe-spanning investigation of her own into the never-ending series of shell companies that seem to originate out of Panama. The companies are run by the two real-life figures at the center of the Panama Papers, Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) and Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman), who act as hosts here, taking us through a series of vignettes that break up the Streep story, all of which outline the issues at the heart of the Panama Papers, the most common theme being greed.

The stories vary in how amusing they are, with one lengthy aside, involving a multimillionaire (Nonso Anozie) his daughter and her college roommate/ his mistress, one of the better tales, where he tries to buy his daughter’s silence by pawning off a shell company on her. Other stories include an unscrupulous British investor (Matthias Schoenaerts) who makes a big mistake trying to pull off a scam in China, with this quick story tackling human trafficking, organ harvesting, and even Falun Gong.

If THE LAUNDROMAT suffers from these lengthy asides, it’s that as amusing as they are the result is that the Streep story ultimately feels inconsequential. Soderbergh’s a ruthless editor, rarely letting his films run over ninety minutes, but the A-story here, involving Streep ultimately feels shortchanged. There’s no resolution and it ultimately goes nowhere, which is too bad because Streep is excellent. Soderbergh also tries to be a little too cute for his good, having Streep take on a second role as a Panamanian secretary (brownface in 2019?) under heavy makeup, a false nose, a wig, and a goofy accent. Peter Sellers she’s not and her performance here will more likely make you wince than laugh. Sections like this feel more like something left out of an OCEAN’S ELEVEN sequel (complete with a David Holmes score) than anything else.

As for Oldman and Banderas, it’s no surprise that both are good, but of the two I’d wager Banderas is more successful in making his character feel like a real person, while Oldman, with his accent, comes off as more of a comic caricature. Some of the smaller roles are the most effective ones, with Schwimmer effective as the good guy business owner totally screwed by Fonseca and Mossack’s scams, while Sharon Stone has a juicy cameo as a real estate agent who sells Streep’s hoped-for Vegas condo out from under her to Russian oligarchs, none of whom have any plans to actually use the place as anything more than an investment.

THE LAUNDROMAT is another Netflix original, and more than any other film of theirs that I’ve seen at TIFF this year, it feels like one that’s best served on the small screen. It feels like TV, and will likely fare better at home, where a short, comic look at a huge financial scam will feel like less of a cheat than it did on the big screen.

Chris Bumbray



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