Rotten Tomatoes has gotten it wrong before, such is the nature of a review aggregate site, which mashes populist and academic film critic scores into one unsightly Frankenstein metric. But I can’t remember them getting a score this wrong.
Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas star in Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, which Netflix picked up, titled “The Laundromat,” covering diverse fictionalized plot threads centering around the Panama Papers, offshore shell companies and how they work, and how everyday people, like widow Ellen Martin (Streep) are thrown under the bus by what amounts to powerful men hiding behind pieces of paper.
The film initially focuses on Ellen, whose husband dies in a boat accident and is not properly compensated for her loss, because the boat company bought insurance from a scammer who used a shell company set up by the law firm Mossack Fonseca & Co. in Panama to appear legitimate and avoid financial responsibility. The narrative shifts, as Ellen flies to the island of Nevis to track down said scammer’s accountant, Malchus Irvin Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright), who is later arrested. Ellen eventually traces the spiderweb of corruption to Mossack Fonseca & Co., where she hits a dead end until the massive database leak that is the Panama Papers are released, which serves to capsize the entire firm and the thousands of shady shell companies they managed with it.
Throughout it, the film breaks the fourth wall with narration by the firm’s two partners, Jürgen Mossack (Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Banderas) who explain to the audience how their laundering works, teaching people about money, as well as their motivations. It’s different, and something only top notch actors like Oldman and Banderas can pull off, accompanied by superior direction by Soderbergh. The film effortlessly transitions between Ellen’s narrative and that of the web of corruption she finds herself grappling with, and the film goes on a few tangents, highlighting the different types of people Mossack and Fonseca were doing business with, from the shady elite who hide behind legal walls to justify their shady behavior, to cartel members, to foreigners who are looking to evade their country’s laws for the sake of greed.
It’s an interesting film with a lot to say. It will entertain and educate you, but it won’t baby you, or protect you from the harsh realities that it portrays. Streep has perhaps the most powerful monologue I’ve seen in a film this year towards the end, as she takes off her makeup and walks onto what is very clearly the set of the film, and tells it to the audience straight: All this was possible because we elect rich politicians who passed campaign finance laws that allow them to accept bribes from people who want weak tax havens and shell company laws that they both can take advantage of.
Or, as Rotten Tomatoes puts it “‘The Laundromat’ misuses its incredible cast by taking a disappointingly blunt and unfocused approach to dramatizing the real-life events that inspired it.”
Maybe its bluntness was the point of the film. The general public has already forgotten everything surrounding the Panama Papers — most never understood their significance to begin with — so a film like this one is necessary for them to understand it and for it to stick.
I don’t know what they are talking about by lack of focus — yes, Streep’s character goes down a rabbit hole to see what happened with her money, but that’s the point of the film; how ordinary people have to jump through ridiculous legalese because our legal system has allowed shady multinational corporations run amok with it and their lives. But the film breaks down each step into digestible bites anyone can understand. In my opinion, this is as focused a film tackling this subject can hope to be.
As per misusing its cast, it seems like they saw a completely differently film than me, as Oldman and Banderas serve as captivating narrators, Streep delivers a masterful performance, and every one else is serviceable.
Its 42 percent rotten score doesn’t sit well with me, and is in no way representative of the film. This film is a few clalibers above your standard popcorn fare, and deconstructs an incredibly important and complex issue and piece of history that people need to understand and remember.
“The Laundromat” gets an 8.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregation of this film gets a 1.5/10