There is a subtle through-line in most of Steven Soderbergh’s films that relates to the abuse of power. This was certainly the case in Erin Brockovich (2000), Traffic (2000), The Informant! (2009), and even his Ocean’s trilogy. It seemed adequate then that the American director should adapt the story of the Panama Papers for the screen.
The Laundromat (2019) is a sprawling look at the intricacies of how shell companies work, in specific relation to the Mossack Fonseca advisors who were at the center of the 2016 Panama Papers scandal. The respective Jurgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) act as Chorus-like narrators, trying to plead their innocence in the face of the larger corrupt system. The film jumps around to how such shell companies can hurt common people, like Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who is struck by tragedy and cheated out of proper compensation. We jump intermittently to how the wealthy utilize their hidden money and eventually to the downfall of the entire scheme.
Just from the preliminary plot outline, you can see that the film is extremely stretched out, with the narrators acting as the disparate conjectures between stories in the US, Mexico, and China. Soderbergh’s editing allows for a certain tonal likeness to cover the majority of the film, but the scattered story allows for only a superficial dive into each character and story. As a result, the film never deepens an emotional or closer understanding of the Panama Papers scandal than a newspaper article might have given. There is certainly some fun, regarding Oldman and Banderas explaining the world financial system, but they seem random and contrast badly with the tragedies that are also shown on screen.
These faults in my eyes could be entirely purposeful, however. The thin stretch of the emotional narrative might be to show the vast expanse of this scandal, and the apathetic conduct of the narrators might be to show their disregard for the human experience in substitution of greed. However, the cinematic form is meant to bring us into the emotional and psychological journeys of characters or a sociological analysis of a time period or people; The Laundromat seems indecisive in what it wants to be, biting off more than it can chew. Soderberg has proven to be a fantastic director, but he is incapable of finding a core grounding for this story.
It is only towards the end of the film, in the final couple of scenes that we understand the underlying motivation that Soderbergh had in making the film. It is here that the film begins to break the fourth wall even more than the narrators had previously done, and Oldman, Banderas, and Streep seeming to drop their act to review the lessons that the film is supposed to leave viewers about the broken financial system.
The Laundromat is certainly informative for those that are little versed in finance or the Panama Papers scandal; and there are some great cameos ranging from Sharon Stone, David Schwimmer, James Cromwell and Will Forte amongst others. However, a grounding of this story, that Soderbergh was able to achieve in films like Traffic and Erin Brockovich, is lost to the sheer size of what he wanted to show.