Review: 'The Laundromat' a disjointed, lackluster chronicle

by Shera Bhala | 11/5/19 2:00am

Wealth can create vicious cycles. The more money a person earns, the more scared they become of losing it, and, as such, they resort to extreme measures to protect their money. The scandal of the Panama Papers — the leaked documents exposing the offshore businesses of many wealthy individuals, of which some were shell companies used for the illegal purposes of fraud and tax evasion — details such extreme measures, making for an unbelievable chronicle that is the premise for “The Laundromat.” 

Despite the explosive nature of the scandal upon which the film is based, “The Laundromat” fails to live up to the intrigue of its premise. Directed by the independent cinema filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, “The Laundromat” stars Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas. Streep plays Ellen Martin, a recently widowed woman whose husband drowned on a boat during their trip to Niagara Falls. Oldman and Banderas act as slimy lawyers Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, respectively. Jeffrey Wright plays Malchus Irvin Boncamper, the overseer of many illicit companies, one of which is the illegitimate company that supposedly insured the cruise company in Niagara Falls. And, taking on a role much different than Ross in “Friends,” David Schwimmer acts as the head of the boat company, frantically and tragically discovering the insurance company’s fraud.

These actors come together in the didactic comedy that “The Laundromat” aims to execute. The movie commences with an odd introduction by the antagonists, Mossack and Fonseca. Mossack speaks with a terribly forced German accent as they discuss the secrets that arise with money and provide a history of bartering and means of exchange. This first section of the film already consists of a disjointed assortment of scenes, which are confusing and disorienting. 

Divided into five sections, the movie begins with “Secret 1: The Meek Are Screwed.” This first secret shares the story of Martin and her husband: his tragic drowning due to the boat accident and the consequent discovery of the fake insurance company, United Reinsurance Group, which the boat company used. The fraudulent business is headed by Boncamper, a lethargic, uncaring man who plays Solitaire on his desktop computer during the day. Following the funeral, Martin travels to Las Vegas, where she nostalgiacally recalls first meeting her deceased husband and dedicates herself to uncovering the secrets of United Reinsurance. 

Martin’s amateur investigation opens a can of worms — or a can of illicit dealings, tax evasion, bribery and shell companies. The second section, “Secret 2: It’s All Shells,” delves into the offshore shell companies that wealthy people set up to hold their assets and evade scrutiny. Mossack Fonseca & Co. provided law and corporate services for such dealings. Sad and troubled, Martin travels to the Caribbean Island of Nevis. During the flight, she has a disturbing dream of arriving at the United Reinsurance offices and shooting its employees. In reality, however, she actually discovers that United only has a P.O. Box address in Nevis and is not a legitimate company. The disturbing nature of Martin’s troubling dream has no place in a movie that seeks to replicate “The Big Short” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

The next scene, similarly confusing and non-linear, portrays Boncamper’s arrest by American authorities on the charge of money laundering, during which the viewer must assume that Boncamper and Martin were coincidentally on the same return flight to the U.S. In its non-linear fashion, the film then provides a glance into the Panamanian headquarters of Mossack Fonseca & Co., revealing a scene in which employees discuss the hundreds of thousands of shell companies created by the law firm. 

“Secret 3: Tell A Friend” is perhaps the most confusing of all the sections. This secret blends together the biography of Fonseca, the murder of two Americans in Sinaloa, Mexico by a drug dealer who has shell companies through Mossack Fonseca & Co. and the repugnant life of Charles (played by Nonso Anozie), a wealthy South African man who cheats on his wife with their daughter’s roommate at the University of Southern California. These clips are scrambled, and while they provide interesting stories, it is difficult to see their connection to the bigger picture. “The Laundromat” acts like a teacher who loves his subject but is disheveled and unable to explain it to his students. 

In “Secret 4: Bribery 101,” perhaps the only linear storyline in the film, Charles’ efforts to conceal his affair continue.He offers his daughter a shell company in exchange for her silence, declaring, “This is adulthood. It’s filled with disappointments and negotiations.” Despite Charles’ attempted bribery, his young mistress confesses their adulterous adventures to his wife. The shell company that he “gifted” his daughter is empty, worth only $37. The discovery of this money laundering scam is only one of the many created by Mossack Fonseca & Co. 

Revealing another scam, the final secret, “Secret 5: Making A Killing,” opens in Chongqing, China with a British businessman who attempts to extort the powerful Chinese politician Bo Xilai and his wife for their offshore holdings. This sub-story takes an even darker turn, as Bo orchestrates a live organ-harvesting operation from Chinese prisoners who practice Falun Gong meditation and philosophy. Again, similar to the dark dream that Martin has on the plane, this scene — a clip of corneas being removed from a person’s eyeballs — is far too gruesome for “The Laundromat.” But ultimately, Chinese police apprehend the criminal couple for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. 

A similar downfall occurs for Mossack and Fonseca upon the release of the Panama Papers. Martin, angrily contemplating the situation in a church, asserts that Mossack, Fonseca and their affluent clients “know godd—n well what they’re doing. They just don’t care.” 

This astute observation of people and organizations who think they are too big to fail compliments Martin and her detective skills, which see Mossack and Fonseca imprisoned, although for the short sentence of three months. Martin is revealed to be the John Doe who acted as the whistleblower for the Panama Papers. Although the identity of the whistleblower in reality is unknown, Martin’s significant role is an interesting perspective on the financial exposé. Her undercover actions provide the one noteworthy plot twist in the film. 

Streep’s performance is well-done, although not as laudable as her role in “Sophie’s Choice” or as iconic as her part in “The Devil Wears Prada.” On the other hand, Mossack and Fonseca’s characters are underdeveloped and forced. They attempt to construct a pedagogic tone explaining shell companies and tax havens for the rich, yet they fall short of a performance anywhere close to Ryan Gosling’s narration of the 2008 global financial crisis in “The Big Short.” While Gosling’s explanations are casual, cool and entertainingly condescending, Oldman and Banderas narrate in an unimaginative, yet confusing and decidedly uncomic, manner. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of their portrayal of Mossack and Fonseca are the garments they don. Dressed in various black, pinstripe and white tuxedos, they wear outfits which manifest stereotypes of the rich.  

Similarly confusing to the narration by Oldman and Banderas, all of the scenes in the movie, while individually quite interesting and well-constructed, are jolting and syncretic as a whole. The narration by the film’s antagonists is poorly connected to scenes of the affairs of Martin, Boncamper, the Mexican drug dealer, Charles and Bo. A proper understanding of the connections between each scene requires far more refinement if the goal is a masterful non-linear plot like that of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”

Pandemic corruption throughout the global financial system deserves a solid, edifying film that fully illuminates on this pressing issue. Where “The Big Short” succeeds in its narrative of such hefty problems, “The Laundromat” falls short, with Soderbergh only compiling a series of garbled vignettes with “The Laundromat.” The topic of the Panama Papers mandates a movie that can support its weight. “The Laundromat” fails to create a flowing narrative complete with the dramatic tension of the explosive exposé.