“The Laundromat”

Steven Soderbergh is perhaps our most adventurous filmmaker. He straddles the worlds of big-budget Hollywood and Independent cinema with ease and skill. We never know what kind of film he will do next and, good or bad, Soderbergh always surprises.

His latest film is “The Laundromat,” a look at the Panama Papers scandal based ever so loosely on Jake Bernstein’s book “Secrecy World.”

Adapted by Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh’s film fails immediately by presenting its worst idea (in a film full of bad ideas). Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas are Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, two attorneys who are the kings of the shell companies who are at the center of every scandal. The two actors speak directly to the audience as they expose the laws and the crimes step by step while walking through backdrops of early man, neon-lit nightclubs, and sunny beaches. They speak much too fast for the audience to follow. Truly, if one isn’t familiar with the inner workings of these scandals, you will be lost. That we keep returning to Oldman and Banderas as they narrate becomes a distraction and ultimately destroys one’s already shaky patience. Oldman speaks in a horrid German accent while Banderas seems out of place with his role and dialogue. These two wonderful actors turn in two of their worst performances.

The only performance (and character) that works in this mess is Ellen Martin, beautifully played by Meryl Streep. Martin is an elderly woman who becomes involved in a boating tragedy while aboard a tour boat. After her husband is killed in the accident, Martin tries to collect on a settlement due to her so she can start her life over.

Streep with Sharon Stone in a still from “The Laundromat”

But the insurance claim can’t be paid out due to loopholes and (il)legal twists and turns. The claim was part of an insurance company that didn’t really exist. The money is funneled through shell companies until it is completely gone, and Ellen Martin’s settlement is much less than was promised.

INTERVIEW: Scott Z. Burns and Jake Bernstein

The emotionally-devastated widow begins her own investigation and discovers her phony insurance company is only one of many being handled by a con man who works out of the Bahamas, played by an absolutely wasted Jeffery Wright. His story should be important to this true tale, yet the character is thrown away much too soon in one of the film’s many dramatically bungled moments.

Other stories are the California mogul (an always solid Nonso Anozie) who is being somewhat blackmailed by his daughter after she discovers his affair with her college roommate and a European businessman (Matthias Schoenaerts) trying to strike a deal with Chinese bureaucrat’s wife (Rosalind Chao) but becomes a victim of a very real danger.

I understand the point and the link these two particular chapters are making but Soderbergh is too clumsy in the way he handles them. The filmmaker seems to over-direct both sequences while completely draining them of emotional bite. Both sequences go absolutely nowhere.

My one major issue above all the others is the tone in which Soderbergh and screenwriter Burns give to the film. The Panama Papers scandal was a devastating and ultra-serious crime that left many penniless while the ”fat cats” got rich yet this film plays much of it for a goof. There is even an actor who removes their mask to reveal their true identity to the audience (a real shell game. Get it?) and it just made me angry. This is not the kind of subject to have fun with. I am a fan of dark humor in serious films, but nothing worked for me here.

Taking a cue from the much more successful film “The Big Short,” every major chapter has its own title card and many people break the fourth wall, although it is done much too often in this film.

Sadly, “The Laundromat” is a work that promises to be an exploration of big ideas but is completely destroyed by a tsunami of patronizing dialogue, uneven performances, misguided tonal shifts, and many dramatic dead ends.

At this point, this is the worst film of 2019, a phrase I never wanted to say when speaking of a Steven Soderbergh film.

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