Making a film based on real-life events comes with a certain responsibility, especially if it’s about the biggest data leak in human history. Based on the infamous “Panama Papers” scandal, The Laundromat tries to tell the story of the two lawyers in charge of the Mossack Fonseca law firm that helped create thousands of off-shore accounts and shell companies for the wealthiest people around the world.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z Burns, the film tries to take a human angle through the character of Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep). After her husband dies in a freak boating accident, she finds out that the boating company bought its insurance from a company that refuses to pay out, leaving everyone who lost someone in the accident in a lurch. This is a clever creative choice because the film shows us the matter going up the chain, from Ellen to the owners of the boat company and finally to the off-shore shell company that sold them the insurance policy it was in no position to pay out.
This leads you to expect a story that humanises the entire scandal by showing Ellen’s struggles, but the film slowly (and later quickly) goes off the rails with its lack of focus. Ellen’s story only goes so far as her trying to track down the insurance company in the Caribbean island of Nevis and finding out that its supposed owner is arrested the second he lands on U.S soil.
The film then shows you random vignettes of a family of wealthy African expatriates living in the U.S and their involvement in creating shell companies through the Mossack-Fonseca law firm and a garbled case of corruption in China tied to the whole scandal. Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) are the film’s narrators who appear every now and then to narrate how financial transactions have evolved over the history of humankind, how they came to do what they do, what exactly it is that they do, and why it isn’t wrong per se.
Due to an extremely disjointed narrative structure that lacks any kind of focus, the film falls apart despite a runtime of only 90 minutes. From a promising start that seems like a good cinematic adaptation of the scandal, The Laundromat turns into an out-and-out moral science lecture with every major character breaking character and the fourth wall and directly telling the audience why this kind of tax evasion does not end. The problem is that despite the characters being fairly well-written and therefore, quite convincing as real people, the orchestration of their lives and actions by the writer is extremely poor.
It may go without saying at this point, but Meryl Streep nails her character’s vulnerability and provides specificity to Ellen’s emotional state at being a victim of something so random. In a scene where she tells her daughter and grandchildren about a date she went on with her husband in their youth, Streep’s performance makes the character’s pain, longing, and helplessness so lifelike that one can’t help but feel anger at her circumstances. Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, too, fit into their characters quite well, even though juggling the role of narrators responsible for exposition handicaps them.
The Laundromat is a massive waste of an opportunity to tell an important story and this is compounded by the fact that its makers were headed in the right direction by trying to humanise the story, but just lost their way. Only Meryl Streep fans might enjoy the film for her performance, but then again, they can find plenty of better films she’s been in.