Bad is such a big word … for being such a small word.
The first time writer Scott Z. Burns paired up with director Steven Soderbergh proved to be a rousing success. The Informant! had real life intrigue, absurd comedy, and an inspired cast to pull everything together in a way that simultaneously educated and entertained. After teaming for two thrillers in the years since, this cinematic duo has now returned to that lighter side of dark subject matter courtesy of The Laundromat—an adaptation of Jake Bernstein‘s book Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite. They seek to provide context about shell corporations, tax avoidance, and the tragic victims (“the meek”) forced to watch as their opportunistic aggressors make money off their pain. In doing so, however, they’ve clearly lost the plot.
Despite being the villains of this story, Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) serve as our tour guides through the web of deception their law firm facilitated for their wealthy clients. It makes sense because their lack of remorse allows them to be a comical entry point into the chaos that ultimately erupted once a whistleblower (“John Doe” has never lost their anonymity) exposed their whole game to topple criminals and politicians alike. We can bask in their excess (alcoholic beverages, beach locales, and diamond-encrusted suit coats) while laughing at their flippant disregard for the suffering they willfully allowed to occur in their pursuit for financial gain. We wait for their inevitable fall, hoping it will be satisfying enough to combat the atrocities on display.
In the meantime, however, Burns and Soderbergh also introduce Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) as a champion of “the meek” who finds herself embroiled in the shady business dealings of multiple Mossack Fonseca customers. She loses her husband, condo, and place in the film’s narrative all before the midway point despite being its de facto hero. Mossack and Fonseca tell us how the people she should be able to face in a court of law for restitution get away scot-free before hijacking the film to tell two unrelated stories with as much visual humor and frustrating futility as the ones affecting Ellen. Will we come full circle and return to her plight at the end? No. We merely get duped into believing she’s important when reality exposes the opposite.
None of the on-screen victims are important. Not Ellen. Not Captain Paris (Robert Patrick). Not Matthew Quirk (David Schwimmer). Not Simone (Jessica Allain) or Miranda (Nikki Amuka-Bird). But neither are the swindlers. Malchus Irvin Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright), Hannah (Sharon Stone), Charles (Nonso Anozie), Maywood (Matthias Schoenaerts), and Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao) are just as inconsequential because they’re nothing more than examples of a larger systemic problem. While the fact that they can legally operate in ways that destroy innocent lives is a worthwhile message (too many billion-dollar companies in America don’t pay taxes), parading out tales of the little people only to kick them to the curb is hardly an effective avenue with which to share it. Why? Because criminals like Mossack and Fonseca suddenly become casualties too.
The Laundromat becomes a presentation of widespread corruption that points its finger at an abstract entity bigger than any of the puppets on which it pulls strings. Burns and Soderbergh go so far as to end the film with an actor removing make-up and costume to become a spokesperson for a lesson that frankly ignores those hurt most. And because the only people who remain from start to finish are Mossack and Fonseca, they almost become antiheroes. We see that they’re evil, but also that they aren’t necessarily criminals by the letter of the law. They helped criminals commit horrible acts of violence, but didn’t commit any themselves. That they’re still standing as Ellen is all but forgotten ostensibly exonerates them. How does that help anything?
I’d ask the same question where it concerns dressing Streep under prosthetics to become a Panamanian punchline that makes no sense to the story. Here’s a woman promoted to perform a menial job that had been done by someone made to look like a migrant worker being paid to sign her name and not ask questions. So why does Streep’s Spanish-accented replacement have so much more say on matters as though equal to Mossack and Fonseca? She doesn’t replace Mia Beltran (Brenda Zamora) as much as take over for the secretary (Veronica Osorio) that kept her bosses in the loop on things they couldn’t be bothered with. Why not just hire a Latina actress then? Why have it be Streep unless you also have it be Ellen?
Why focus on Ellen Martin enough to invest in her plight if she’s one tragedy amongst many? Is it because she’s the only true victim? That’s its own slippery slope since it says Simone and Miranda don’t count because their lifestyle was built upon Charles’ nefarious dealings. That would also erase Mossack and Fonseca from the victim ledger despite a refusal to point a finger at them. Because Burns and Soderbergh choose to show a lot without saying anything, it’s impossible to care. Maybe things would be different if they instilled a sense of helplessness and fear, but they can’t even manage that. They consistently minimize the danger instead. They render it bad luck. Rather than present a problem that needs fixing, they show how it never will.
courtesy of Netflix