The Dallas Movie Screening Group

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Saturday, September 28, 2019

NTXFF2019 - The Laundromat

In “The Laundromat,” frequent collaborators director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, basing his screenplay on the book “Secrecy World” by Jake Bernstein, attempt to make the scandalous Panama Papers a palatable crowd-pleaser. The end result is an episodic movie that offers a tonally-impaired look at the way the world’s billionaires cheat the financial system using shell companies and offshore accounts.

The movie’s plot synopsis implies that the film’s main character is Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep, who will probably earn herself another Oscar nomination just for appearing on screen here). While on vacation with her husband (James Cromwell), the couple are involved in a ferry accident which results in her husband’s death, in addition to multiple other casualties. The ferry owners (Robert Patrick and David Schwimmer) discover that they have bought a phony insurance policy. Their crime? Attempting to save money – one of the few jokes that lands in the movie. When Ellen’s payout turns out to be less than expected, she begins to investigate, uncovering a web of shady dealings with a Panama law firm in their center.

Alas, Ellen is just one of many characters. Soderbergh and Burns present a kaleidoscopic look at the innerworkings of these fake institutions. As the film opens, a pair of overdressed gentlemen, later revealed to be the lawyers – Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) – at the center of the scandal, cheekily attempt to explain the basics of their scheme. Oldman gives one of his worst performances, an appallingly bad caricature that was surely intended to induce laughter but only causes cringes. Banderas doesn’t fare much better. The fourth wall is instantly broken as the filmmakers attempt to fuel the same energy found in “The Big Short.” The device doesn’t work here, creating a tonal imbalance that hinders the film.

As the duo poorly continues to intermittently woo the audience with their charm, they introduce a series of vignettes that highlight the reach of the scam. The stories take place from all corners of the world – the United States, China, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Africa – and all walks of life. Like most movies of this nature, some segments work better than others. Those in which the film isn’t trying to show how clever it is work best. This is one feature where I think a more serious approach might have been in the movie’s favor. “The Laundromat” tries too hard and often falls flat on its face. At the least, Soderbergh should have dialed back, or deleted, the Mossack and Fonseca wall-breaking sequences, the film’s biggest detractors.

With the number of A-listers involved – Sharon Stone, Jeffrey Wright, Melissa Rauch, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, and Matthias Schoenaerts also have bit parts – I expected better out of this movie. The biggest issue with this film is its inability to establish a consistent tone and steady rhythm. Although, the individual episodes don’t flow together well thanks to the cheeky wall-breaking connectors, they do play out well on their own. In the vignettes, the actors do a good job of sucking the audience in as the filmmakers use their tales to show some of the various ways in which the rich use these accounts to their advantage and how the business dealings can go down. By the end, the movie comes across as too preachy, especially in its final scene. Thankfully, this one is distributed by Netflix. If you must watch it, save your cash and view it when it is put up on their site.
(Review by Bret Oswald)

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