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TIFF 2019 Review: Steven Soderbergh's Panama Papers drama 'The Laundromat' a rare miss

Courtesy of Netflix


Trying desperately to be “The Big Short,” Steven Soderbergh's “The Laundromat” is a rare miss for both the filmmaker and his entourage of strong performers including Antonio Banderas, Gary Oldman, and even the queen herself, Meryl Streep.

As well intentioned as “The Laundromat” is, it would seem the director (and screenwriter Scott Z Burns) attempt at trying to explain complicated financial jargon to a general audience will struggle to hold their attention. If not for Meryl Streep, there probably wouldn’t be any buzz surrounding the film.

Though give credit to “The Laundromat” for dealing with real hot button topics, starting in 2016 when a whistleblower unleashed more than 11 million documents from the law firm Mossack Fonseca detailing how shell companies protected the world’s richest people from paying taxes on their income. In other words, making the rich richer, while others paid the price.

Soderbergh's decision to try and reconstruct this shady scandal into a sizzle reel of celebrity cameos doesn’t connect or land the way it should. In fact, it makes things rather confusing. The filmmaker - whose career itself can shift in any direction - plays around with multiple styles before sticking with an episodic structure where Oldman and Banderas play the duo of Fonseco and Mossack narrating the chaos like hosts of a game show.

They’re never fully introduced to the audience, and instead just flaunt around in tuxedos while either grocery shopping or sipping cocktails detailing the story. Rather than aid the story, it becomes somewhat pointless the more it commits to these wacky characters being front and center. Not only does it leave “The Laundromat” at a bit of a crossroads, it does nothing to help transition to a series of loosely-connected stories regarding financial misconduct.

This is where Streep’s Ellen Martin comes into the picture, which follows the death of her husband (James Cromwell) stemming from a horrific ferry accident. When the boat’s captain (Robert Patrick) tries to claim the insurance, his son (David Schwimmer) realizes they’re entangled in a series of shell companies pointing back to a corrupt lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) who overlooks some of the dealings. The film then cuts back to Streep who's trying to purchase a nice apartment with the settlement fund, but is outbid by some snappy Russians.

“The Laundromat” then takes shape in China to dramatize the Bo Xilai affair and then again to a Nigerian billionaire trying to bribe his daughter after she finds out that he’s sleeping around with her college roommate. Though their identities are never revealed, they seem like terrible people who deserve all the bad karma coming their way.

But it would seem that Soderbergh is more interested in editing together his opus for Netflix on a sizable budget than actually making sense of the scandal he’s trying to unfold. A film like “The Laundromat” exists so it can inform people on the inequality of botched international tax laws. Yet the worst offense comes late in the game where it’s revealed that Streep is playing a Latina caricature in addition to her other role. The bit and payoff isn’t exactly bolstering with warmth or compassion, and you wonder how Streep was convinced to adhere to Soderbergh's vision in a role that’s likely to cause a stir of controversy; adding a bitter aftertaste on a film that already had a murky attitude with uneven performances.

Grade: C-

Netflix is set to release The Laundromat for a limited theatrical release on September 27th before landing on the streaming service October 18th.

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