The award for this year’s best opening scene should go to The Laundromat, Steven Soderbergh’s star-studded, non-fiction comedy about the Panama Papers. Shot in what appears to be one long, unbroken take, it’s a walk-and-talk lecture on the history of money delivered by Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, two notorious lawyers played with irresistible swagger by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas respectively. Oldman, especially, revels in his role as the self-righteous, preening Mossack, pushing his German accent to Herzog-ian extremes, and emphasising his hissing s-es like a villainous snake in a Disney cartoon.
Dressed in dinner suits and sipping martinis, he and Banderas stroll past hairy neanderthals in the prehistoric past and then saunter down to a glitzy nightclub in the present day, insisting along the way that anyone who disapproves of their business is asking to go back to the days when we bartered for bananas. At this point, it looks as if we’re in for a mischievous collaboration between two Soderberghs: the one who experiments playfully with digital video today, and the powerhouse director who made such hefty campaigning dramas as Traffic and Erin Brockovich 20 years ago.
Ellen is yet another of the fluffy but determined old ladies who Meryl Streep keeps playing
The rest of the film doesn’t live up to that opening. But then again, not many films could. After Mossack and Fonseca have set the stage, we meet Ellen (Meryl Streep in a straggly white wig), a blue-collar grandmother who goes on a boat trip on a lake. When the boat capsizes and her husband (James Cromwell) drowns, the least Ellen can expect is a seven-figure pay-out from the boat company, but its beleaguered owner (David Schwimmer) discovers that his insurers have been bought by other insurers, and these insurers have... well, he can’t make sense of any of it. But Ellen won’t give up so easily. She follows the Panama paper trail all the way to the offices of, you guessed it, Mossack Fonseca, a law firm that specialises in tax avoidance, money laundering, and the creation of thousands of off-shore companies, most of which exist in name only.
Ellen’s sleuthing is never more than humdrum, and Ellen herself – yet another of the fluffy but determined old ladies who Streep keeps playing – is not the most engaging protagonist. All the same, it’s a jolt when she disappears from The Laundromat, taking Streep’s Oscar hopes with her. The film goes on to tell two separate stories. One segment concerns an African tycoon (Nonso Azonie) who bribes his own daughter to keep his infidelities secret. Another segment features a sharp-dressed British city boy (Matthias Schoenaerts) who pushes a Chinese businesswoman (Rosalind Chao) towards a shady deal.
Both stories are amusing enough, and both have links to Mossack Fonseca, but they don’t deepen our understanding of the company, nor do they tie in with Ellen’s investigations. What’s worse, they don’t tie in with the Panama Papers data leak which brought the house of credit cards tumbling down in 2015, but which is consigned to a brief sequence at the end of the film. Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Z Burns, seem to have adapted Jake Bernstein’s book, Secrecy World, by highlighting a few anecdotes that caught their eyes, but they haven’t woven those anecdotes into a cogent thesis or a narrative to compare with Traffic.
The postmodern addresses to camera and the animated chapter headings suggest that Soderbergh has been watching The Big Short. But that Oscar-nominee, for all its shortcomings, tried as hard as it could to elucidate a brain-strainingly complicated set of circumstances. The Laundromat, in contrast, is a light, larky skim over the subject. It may have viewers tutting and chuckling over Mossack Fonseca’s crimes and misdemeanours, but it won’t have them rushing to the barricades. The main problem is that global high finance revolves around obscenely wealthy people, and Soderbergh and Burns’ approach is resolutely cheap and cheerful. The topic deserves a more substantial, more searching film than this jeu d’esprit – and Oldman and Banderas definitely deserve to be in that film.
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