By: Kenneth Flores
Photo Courtesy of: Claudette Barius/Netflix
Adapting real-world incidents of corruption is a common subject in Hollywood. While most of them follow the usual dramatic tension and linear narrative structure, one recent film has sought to take a new spin on the genre. “The Laundromat” is a biographical adaptation of the Panama Papers incident that occurred in 2015 that teaches viewers about the different branches of money laundering.
The film was released in theaters on Sept. 27 and on Netflix on Oct. 18. The film centers on a woman named Ellen Martin — portrayed by Meryl Streep — who gets scammed out of an insurance payment and is left to unravel a long string of corruption. Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca — portrayed by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas — are the scheme masterminds that guide the viewer through the complex structure of corruption.
Even within the saturated genre of adaptations, this film stands out thanks to its unique structure and framing. The various people and “companies” involved in the Panama Papers leak are present, along with respective title cards, in different sections that showcase individual acts of money laundering and swindling. In some scenes, Mossack and Fonseca address the audience and explain the history of money and how they were able to pull off their scheme.
Despite being the film’s “hosts,” Mossack and Fonseca’s narrations are more of a burden than they are helpful. They clash with the more serious and grounded elements of the film, even if their lines provide useful information in regards to money laundering. If their personalities were more extreme, rather in an endearing or arrogant way, these scenes could work better or at least make them stand out like they should. In contrast, Meryl Streep talking to the audience about corruption at the end of the film fits better because of her serious personality and because she expresses her message in a similar manner to a Public Service Announcement.
A major flaw in the film is the characters’ lack of charm. While the acting is at least convincing, the performances fail to generate emotional connections. Because of the episodic nature of the different parts of the scheme, it is difficult for the characters to have any sort of memorability because of the lack of screentime. Despite being on the receiving end of the corruption, Ellen feels less important as the film progresses. Her post-exposition scenes are just there to showcase her progression in discovering the depths of corruption. They do nothing to generate sympathy for her.
The concept and the subject matter of the corruption are interesting and help generate the interest that the characters don’t. What starts out as a simple scheme of swindling insurance money, becomes part of a larger web of corruption comprised of companies and elite people with connections to power. It’s almost jaw-dropping to see that different people from various countries are all part of this scheme to increase their wealth through tax avoidance. This realization also makes the viewer think about how schemes this massive and elusive are still within legal boundaries in the U.S.
While this film succeeds in being unique compared to other films of the genre, its distinctive elements aren’t used properly and instead distract from the realistic ambiance. Questionable creative choices and characters lacking charm are mixed with an interesting event and unique framing device.