It’s always a special moment when someone makes you feel dumb. It’s even more fun when it’s a film that manages to do it.
I was scrolling through my Netflix when I saw Meryl Streep’s face staring back at me. It was the promo for the Netflix original film “The Laundromat.” I knew I had to watch it.
Then I found out it was about tax evasion, off-short accounts and other nefarious dealings by rich people. The topic wasn’t one I was overly enthused about, but where Meryl goes, I will follow.
The film is based on the Mossack Fonseca insurance scandal of a few years ago. Streep plays Ellen, a retiree who finds herself widowed after a vacation pleasure cruise results in her husband’s drowning. The settlement she expects faces as watery a grave as her husband. The insurance company that supposedly insured the boating company is at least three layers down in a pyramid scheme.
Ellen, the intrepid retiree she is, starts digging to discover who these people are that stole her money and poured salt in a wound that may never close.
We also meet the people behind the insurance scam/tax evasion/money laundering, Mossack and Fonseca (Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas). They’re the owners of a law firm that offers corporate services and allows rich people to funnel money through various accounts. Oldman and Banderas also provide the narration for the film, which means they provide lots of explanations for how the things work in the grand scheme of things.
I followed a good deal of it. But, it was when we began talking about the many layers of the fraud that I began to go a bit cross-eyed. Or maybe I just stopped caring. My journalist friends and I have always joked there’s a reason we work with words: math isn’t our favorite. I’ll go ahead and add tax laws to my own personal list.
Director Steven Soderbergh’s dramedy borders on ludicrous at times, while also painting a very real picture of insurance fraud in America and how it impacts ordinary people. Streep’s Ellen looks old and tired. She’s lost her husband of 40 years, and she’s truly searching for a reason why any of this has happened.
Other characters offer that same realism. David Schwimmer and Robert Patrick play the owners of the charter line, and they have to come to terms with the fact this accident killed 21 people, and they have no insurance. It’s horrific for the victims’ families, but it’s also horrific for these two small business owners who are ruined. At one point, Schwimmer says he was just trying to save money, so he went with a cheaper company. He asks what he did wrong in just trying to save some money. It’s a comment that sets up the film’s theme.
Soderbergh’s film has two sides: the haves and have-nots. Ellen, those boat owners and a few others we meet are the have-nots. Their lives and livelihoods are at the mercy of people they’ve never even heard of. Soderbergh also tries to drive home the dastardliness of these corporations and the powerful people behind them. There’s a total lack of compassion even as lives are destroyed.
For example, we meet Charles (Nonso Anozie), a wealthy businessman whose daughter catches him sleeping with her college roommate. He buys her silence with shares of one of his many off-shore companies. It’s worth $20 million, and she agrees. (Oh, their relationship is toast and probably need years of therapy, but she’ll be able to afford it.)
The film alternates between Mossack and Fonseca narrations and mini storylines of the people who somehow play a part in the fraud, whether good or bad. I understand what Soderbergh & Co. were trying to do. They took a very real story and tried to dramatize it to get a point across. It’s well-acted, and it’s cleverly crafted as far as the filming and style itself. (In addition to the actors mentioned earlier, the film is loaded with talent, including James Cromwell, Sharon Stone, Jeffrey Wright, Will Forte, Rosalind Chao, Matthias Schoenaerts and Chris Parnell.)
Unfortunately, the story itself is too busy, jumbled and more than a bit dry. I found myself watching the clock and even pausing a time or two, shocked by how little of the film I’d actually sat through. There’s no finesse or depth to these characters. They’re all just flat caricatures that are unremarkable and forgettable.
Ultimately, the same can be said for “The Laundromat,” and Meryl couldn’t save it.