Netflix’s ‘The Laundromat’ Is a Chaotic Attempt to Dramatize the Panama Papers

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Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as the heads of the Mossack Fonseca law firm in Steven Soderbergh's "The Laundromat."
Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as the heads of the Mossack Fonseca law firm in Steven Soderbergh's "The Laundromat." Credit: Claudette Barius,AP

Just a few short years ago, the worst sentence any successful filmmaker could hear was “Your movie is going to premiere on Netflix.” (Now, of course, that has that been superseded by “Ronan Farrow’s on the phone, says he has a few questions for you.”) The streaming giant, meanwhile, has managed to successfully reposition itself as a natural home for Hollywood talent — thanks largely to its deep pockets and a hands-off artistic approach (but mainly those deep pockets).

Some of the best-reviewed films at this year’s leading festivals are upcoming Netflix releases from acclaimed directors (Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” Noah Baumbach’s “Wedding Story” and Fernando Meirelles’ “The Two Popes,” to name but three). Steven Spielberg may be a big-name holdout to the streaming party, but few others seem to have such qualms.

Indeed, another A-list director, Steven Soderbergh, has already released two films on Netflix this year alone (by his prolific standards, this is about par for the course). The first, “High Flying Bird,” was set in the worlds of basketball and sporting agents, and now he returns with the more high profile “The Laundromat,” about the Central American law firm at the heart of the Panama Papers.

To call Mossack Fonseca shady would be like calling Count Dracula a bit of a bad fit to work at a blood bank. Over 30 years, it helped the superrich keep their money hidden from prying government eyes, building “a factory that flooded the planet with more than 210,000 anonymous companies, trusts and foundations.” That quote is from Jake Bernstein’s book “Secrecy World,” upon which “The Laundromat” is based — although the film trailer prefers to sell itself as being “based on some real shit!” Vice magazine first shone a light on the company's practices with its brilliantly headlined “The Law Firm that Works with Oligarchs, Money Launderers, and Dictators,” back in 2014.

You may remember reading excerpts of the Panama Papers back in April 2016, when over 370 journalists worldwide combed through the 11.5 million documents from the Mossack Fonseca archive in search of possible dirt. They found plenty — leading to the resignations of political leaders in Iceland and Pakistan — but it was a hard slog for the average reader who didn’t know their bear market from their bearer shares.

Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns are fully aware of that accessibility problem and adopt the “Big Short” approach of playing financial fraud for laughs — offering an idiot’s guide to the wealth management industry along the way.

The biggest difference between the two films, though, is that while Adam McKay’s 2015 film centered on a specific incident and was full of memorable characters, “The Laundromat” takes a more slapdash approach, presenting the scandal as a series of vignettes that fail to build to a satisfactory conclusion, let alone a powerful one. The film works spasmodically, but its scattershot approach to the storyline ultimately proves its undoing.

One obvious way into the story would have been to make it about the “John Doe” (still unknown) who leaked the trove of documents in the first place, or the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists who ploughed through them and broke the story. But not only do Soderbergh and Burns shun those options, they turn the former plot point into an outrageous reveal, while the only featured journalist is seen rejecting the story as lacking a local angle.

Caricatures, not characters

Instead of choosing to “follow the money,” to borrow the classic quote from “All the President’s Men,” “The Laundromat” places Messrs Mossack and Fonseca center stage and makes them our narrators — establishing the outlandish nature of the film from the off. It’s a bold move, but one that doesn’t pay off since the two are presented as caricatures rather than flesh-and-blood characters.

Meryl Streep as Ellen Martin in "The Laundromat."Credit: Claudette Barius,AP

Throwing subtlety to the wind once more, Gary Oldman plays Jürgen Mossack as a camp German, prone to lines like “Did we happen to mention that we are in this for the money?” The real Mossack’s father had served as a corporal in the Waffen-SS Skull and Crossbones division at the end of World War II, a fact revealed in a typically throwaway manner in the film.

A more restrained Antonio Banderas fairs better as Ramón Fonseca, the straight man in this vaudeville act explaining the ways of the secrecy world. Yet by the film’s end, I was still none the wiser about whether Mossack and Fonseca were cold-blooded sharks mercilessly exploiting weak legislation worldwide, or merely a couple of harmless suits who hit upon a borderline-legal scheme to make their clients and themselves a lot of money.

What works better is the depiction of the staggering mundanity of their operation: lackeys earning $15 a signature to serve as company directors; the office drone who was unwittingly the director of 25,000 companies worldwide. As someone says at one point, “The world is just men hiding behind piles of paper.”

The film’s crippling lack of a dramatic through line is highlighted by the lot of its star, Meryl Street. She plays the fictional character of Ellen Martin, a retiree whose fate sees her drawn into the world of Mossack Fonseca. Part of her story is taken from a real-life tragedy featured briefly in Bernstein’s book, but here this is spun into a half-hearted pursuit of justice, with Ellen disappearing from the screen for too long. Instead, we get five separate, increasingly unrewarding sections with titles like “The meek are screwed” (tell us something we don’t know), “It’s just shells” (about shell companies) and “Bribery 101.”

Throughout, there are echoes of better Soderbergh movies: Two films released in 2000 — the courtroom drama “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic,” his opus stories about the global drugs trade — and 2009’s corporate whistle-blower comedy-drama “The Informant!” The latter was also written by Burns and is a more successful attempt to play fast and loose with the norms of the genre than “Laundromat.”

Apologies for making anyone feel old, but it is now 30 years since Soderbergh arrived on the scene in such dazzling fashion with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” He remains a director worthy of our attention (mishits and all), but I often find myself wishing that he would spend a little more time on each project — bring in another writer to really nail that script; hire a director of photography instead of shooting everything himself under his “Peter Andrews” pseudonym — rather than seemingly being in a rush to get onto the next project. (See also Richard Linklater, whose somewhat ragged studio output — cough, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” — sits in marked contrast to his “personal” films.

Will Soderbergh ever produce another mainstream gem to rival 1998’s “Out of Sight,” “Erin Brockovich” or 2001’s “Ocean’s Eleven”? He certainly hasn’t managed it in “The Laundromat,” although its disposable nature is definitely best suited to the small screen (I would have felt short-changed if I’d paid to see it at a movie theater).

There’s always a place for messy, mischievous art (as proved by his hero Richard Lester’s best works, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Bed Sitting Room”), but I live in hope that Soderbergh has at least another classic in him before he retires (again).