Review by C.J. Bunce
As dramas about the current problems in the world are concerned, it doesn’t get much better than The Laundromat, one of the many direct-to-Netflix dramas premiering this year. It’s full of genre favorite actors and the subject is that “ripped from the headlines” variety. The film begins with a couple celebrating their 40th anniversary with a trip to Niagara Falls. Unfortunately they do like many do on any vacation, they take local transportation. Here that is a small commuter boat. When a minor wave hits the side, the boat rocks and sinks. The man, played by James Cromwell, dies, and his wife, played by Meryl Streep, lives. We then meet the crooks of the story, two law partners in Panama played by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, breaking the fourth wall to explain the rules of modern finance, and ultimately a step-by-step guide to international money laundering via the U.S. tax code. The duo is perfect, dressed to the nines to reflect their wealth, courtesy of costume designer Ellen Mirojnick (Starship Troopers, The Chronicles of Riddick). Like every villain in any story, these villains see themselves as the victims. Director Steven Soderburgh then spins a story requiring some bizarre worldbuilding–in our own world–that recounts only a few of the many strange aspects of the real-life Panama Papers scandal, which ultimately took down all sorts of politicians and multi-millionaires.
Unlike any other good film about an actual historical event that follows the basic sequential framework, like, as an example, The Post, which also starred Meryl Streep, the value of this film is in its style and design and the way it tells the story. It’s also an educational tool that explains the realities of “wealth management,” but it doesn’t do it in a bland way, incorporating the law partners like the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, but because of the actors’ charm, it’s handled much better than previous similar efforts, like, say, The Wolf of Wall Street or Goodfellas. As good as Soderburgh’s The Informant!, the style of his Ocean’s 11 series, and the gravity of his Erin Brockovich, this should be counted as a big film for 2019. It’s funny when it needs to be, but its scope is real and grave, highlighting the fragility of life with not only the story it tells, but the precariousness of every player as they go to and fro in the film, all one slip from becoming Streep or Cromwell’s character at any point.
The Laundromat has an all-star cast of genre favorites, featuring great work from the likes of Jeffrey Wright, Robert Patrick, Nonso Anozie, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, Rosalind Cho, David Schwimmer, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Sharon Stone.
The film has some of its setting in Panama at the law firm where the partners reside, and the location has the similar feel from a location in Sydney Pollack’s The Firm, but it overall doesn’t have that same heart-pounding action. It’s also quirky in the way of the Denzel Washington picture, Roman J. Israel, Esq. It has this ever-looming darkness, and despite knowing this is a true story you’ll expect Oldman and Banderas to be laughing arm and arm in actual Hell at film’s end. Without talking down to viewers, Soderburgh, with a tight script by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant!) based on a book by Jake Bernstein, whittles a complex subject into a memorable, easy to digest life lesson. If you don’t know what’s important about the scandal when the credits roll, you probably never will.
Also within the framework of the film, keep an eye out for a surprise coming your way by way of casting. Streep is perfect as always, but so is everyone else. This is a political piece for sure, but only incriminating and cringeworthy for the world’s 15 million millionaires or few thousand billionaires.
With much weaker films winning Oscars over the past few years, The Laundromat should be an easy winner next February. The Laundromat is streaming now on Netflix.