By Liam Lacey
Given his track record, his versatility, and willingness to take risks, it always seems wise to give Steven Soderberg a bonus credit just for throwing new things in the mix. The Laundromat, his latest, is a serio-comic dramatized lesson about the international data leak and financial scandal known as The Panama Papers. Broken up into star-studded series of vignettes, with narration and on-screen text, it’s more or less an anecdote-stuffed Power Point over-view of financial corruption and its human cost.
Even with that extra good-will bonus, The Laundromat consistently feels as if it’s intended to be funnier or more poignant than it actually is. For a number of reasons — the blink-and-you-miss-them star cameos, and the hopscotch narrative — it may be best-suited for the casual-viewing mode of at-home streaming (in its eventual home on Netflix) rather than during its two-week theatrical run.
The anthology of thematically linked vignettes brings to mind the British anthology series Black Mirror, although writer Scott Z. Burns cites a different source. In adapting Secrecy World, Jake Bernstein’s non-fiction account of the Panama Papers scandal, he was inspired by Damián Szifron’s 2014 uneven but comparatively harder-punching Wild Tales, a series of a half-dozen stories of corruption and revenge in contemporary Argentina.
Burns and Soderbergh have added one a sort of Brechtian fourth-wall breaking style, by having a pair of on-screen narrators: Panama lawyers Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman in a German accent that sounds like he’s gargling saurbrauten and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) whose law firm, Mossack Fonseca, was at the centre of the international scandal. Self-satisfied and preening over cocktails, garbed in a series of garish suits, they help the elite hide tax money in tax shelters around the world and help criminals a way of making dirty money clean again.
If the international money laundering story resembles Soderbergh’s drug-web film Traffic, he also has room for a bit of Erin Brockovich here, the ordinary woman who blows the whistle on a conspiracy of corruption. That character is played by Meryl Streep as a self-deprecating, fluttery Michigan grandmother, Ellen Martin.
One fall day, Ellen and her husband Joe (James Cromwell) take a pleasant cruise on a boat on New York State’s Lake George. The boat capsizes, killing Joe and 19 other passengers. (Like many elements in the film, it’s based on a real event, the 2005 capsize of the Ethan Allen ferry on Lake George, New York. After the accident, the boating company executive (David Schwimmer) learns he has been sold a fraudulent insurance policy.
Soon, Ellen learns she won’t be getting the promised seven-figure payout. Nor will she score that fancy Las Vegas condo, overlooking the spot where she and her husband first met (Sharon Stone has a cameo as a beast-of-prey real estate agent). Seems some cash-rich Russians swept in and bought all the units.
Ellen goes on an investigation the insurance fraud, which takes her to the Caribbean island of Nevis, where the shell company that oversees the insurance provider turns out to be nothing more than a postal box. The nominal head of the company (Jeffrey Wright) enjoys a middle-class lifestyle for getting the mail, but he has another kind of deception going on, including families in both Nevis and Miami.
Periodically, we drop Ellen for entirely unrelated stories tied to the various kinds of shell games around the world. One involves an African businessman (the physically imposing Nonso Anozie). In one story, suggestive of a bedroom farce, the businessman — caught canoodling with his college-age daughter’s roommate — tries to buy her silence buy giving her a company. In another episode, which tips into horror, an English “white glove” investor (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) finds himself at the mercy of a sociopathic Chinese client (Rosalind Chao).
Streep’s character comes back in force (because you don’t put Streep in a film just to be self-deprecating and fluttery) and our smug narrators find themselves ensnared in their webs of deception. But there’s nothing here that feels cathartic, resolved or regrettably, unfamiliar. The Laundromat is a caustic little frolic, and while you may feel some fresh sting of outrage, the Panama Papers just feels like so many outrages ago.
The Laundromat. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Scott Z Burns. Starring Meryl Streep, James Cromwell, Antonio Banderas, Gary Oldman, David Schwimmer, Jeffrey Wright, Mathias Schoenaerts. Opens on limited run October 4, and later on Netflix.