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In 2016, a massive data leak that came to be known as the Panama Papers was dumped in the hands of German journalists. The documents revealed a massive number of offshore "shell companies" and other tax avoidance schemes that had been created by the Panama based law firm of Mossack Fonseca, many of them for some of the world's most powerful people.
Now, in 2019, the "alleged" story of Mossack Fonseca is given the biopic style treatment in The Laundromat. The movie has an all-star cast to help bring the story of these technically legal but certainly shady monetary networks to life. Unfortunately, while the cast largely shines on an individual basis, life is one thing The Laundromat is seriously lacking.
Summarizing the plot of The Laundromat is somewhat difficult, because it's actually not that easy to say what the movie is actually supposed to be about. Gary Oldman portrays Jürgen Mossack and Antonio Bandaras portrays Ramón Fonseca, the two lawyers at the center of the story, but the movie isn't really about them. The pair act mostly as narrators and tour guides through a handful of stories that are unrelated to each other, showing how various people's lives are impacted by the business done by this law firm, and the various shell companies and tax havens the firm created.
The primary focus of the story is on Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who loses her husband (James Cromwell) in a tragic accident while on vacation. The company that owns the insurance on the boat is one of the companies involved in this game of shells, allowing them all to escape liability. This leads Ellen on the hunt for whoever sits at the top of the pyramid in an attempt to find somebody responsible.
We return intermittently to Ellen's story in-between diversions to other characters with their own stories. There's the multimillionaire who gives away one of his numerous shell companies to keep an affair quiet. There's money laundering in China. What do these stories have to do with anything? Well they sound just awful, don't they?
The fact that The Laundromat follows a variety of unrelated characters who are all involved in the same financial event isn't, in and of itself, a fault. The year before the Panama Papers were a thing, we saw a movie that very much did the same thing. It was called The Big Short, and there are a lot of obvious similarities between the two movies.
In addition to the similar storytelling structure, we have a lot of fourth wall breaking conversations between characters and the audience, including some admittedly funny admissions that we're all watching a movie here. We also get humorous attempts to explain complicated business and financial arrangements for an audience that isn't likely to be full of MBAs.
However, beyond the surface level, The Laundromat fails to connect in the same way The Big Short did. The Big Short wasn't a movie about any of the characters that were in it. It was about the financial crisis itself. It was about the financial structures in place that led to the housing collapse and how that happened. It was about how the characters were impacted by the institutions and how they reacted to them.
The "villain" of The Big Short is institutional, while the "villain" of The Laundromat, regardless of how pervasive the issue at hand might be, is still people. This is a more psychological story, yet we never get a chance to understand the real psychology of any of the characters. Mossack and Fonseca (the characters) basically spend the movie trying to sell the audience that they're not the bad guys here, but we never really get to know them since they're little more than the movie's hosts.
The entire story is ultimately unfulfilling since way this all ends in real life, means there's essentially no satisfying resolution for any of the characters. Sometimes real life makes for a weak movie.
That's not to say that The Laundromat isn't without its charms. While Antonio Bandaras and Gary Oldman might not be all that important to the movie, they're certainly entertaining every time they are on screen. If The Laundromat had been some sort of Netflix limited series with these two as hosts, it might have been enough to keep me tuning in.
And Meryl Streep is still Meryl Streep. Her performance as a woman being unintentionally abused time and again by Mossack Fonseca is as strong as you would expect her to be. It's just a shame the story doesn't really know what to do with her past the midpoint.
The Laundromat really wants you to walk away from it frustrated in the system that allows these tax havens to exist. Walking away frustrated won't be a problem, but you'll mostly just be upset that the movie wasn't better.