Taking risks in filmmaking can be a bold way to put a unique spin on stories we already know well.
Biopics and other movies about historical events and figures are often chronological and stale, though recent efforts to infuse life into the genre have proven to be a welcome change.
Since writer/director Todd McKay’s darkly comic take on the financial crisis of 2008 won him Oscar nominations for his film “The Big Short,” filmmakers have blurred the lines with comedic attempts at retelling history from former White House officials in “Vice” to ice skating scandals in “I, Tonya” to the sexual harassment claims at Fox News in the upcoming “Bombshell.”
A new Netflix film attempts to join these ranks as director Steven Soderbergh takes on international tax evasion and the Panama Papers with his new feature, “The Laundromat,” a star-studded mess of a movie that bounces around far too much to be largely enjoyable.
Told in a series of vignettes, the film follows a pair of lawyers who create shell companies in order to conceal money for greedy clients. A series of seemingly unrelated incidents like insurance scams and infidelity find a common denominator in the Mossack Fonseca law firm.
In his first major role since winning an Oscar for 2017’s “Darkest Hour,” Gary Oldman ramps up a quirky accent and a wry, knowing smile as attorney Jürgen Mossack. It’s a surprising, almost baffling choice for the veteran actor who plays for the laughs that only come once in every three attempts.
There’s not enough time for Oldman to develop anything beyond a mild caricature of a man that many have heard of but few know anything of significance about.
The same can be said of Antonio Banderas’ Ramón Fonseca, the relative straight man to Oldman’s more comic portrayal. Charmingly refreshing yet forgettable, Banderas is a welcome salve for the chaos of “The Laundromat” and not memorable enough to warrant a bigger role in the film.
Oscar winner Meryl Streep stands in for hundreds of Mossack Fonseca fraud victims in a composite role as a woman digging into a fake insurance policy.
It’s vastly entertaining to watch Streep bumble about in scarves and pantsuits with a broad performance and yet there’s still a lot left on the table as Soderbergh reorients audiences to other characters despite a concerted effort to rally them behind Streep’s Ellen.
This is further exacerbated when it comes to the deep supporting cast including the likes of Jeffery Wright, James Cromwell, Sharon Stone and a host of others who feel more like passing shadows rather than characters in an ongoing story.
While “The Big Short” does a magnificent job of simplifying economic concepts for a broad audience, “The Laundromat” wobbles through these explanations and often leaves unfamiliar viewers wondering what’s actually going on.
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns attempts to break these complexities apart by allowing Mossack and Fonseca to narrate each segment of the film as a sort of de facto explanation of their greed, but it becomes far too messy the further down the rabbit hole the movie travels leading to an inexplicable and poorly contrived conclusion.
It’s unclear whether this is a directorial choice or simply a poor screenwriting decision, but “The Laundromat” is significantly the lesser of Soderbergh’s two Netflix features to arrive in 2019.
His sports drama “High Flying Bird” is much more dynamic visually thanks to inventive use of iPhone cinematography and well worth checking out on Netflix over “The Laundromat.”
An October release with mainstays like Streep and Oldman in leading roles usually spells awards season success, but “The Laundromat” is far too strange a film for most voters to take seriously.
Netflix has backed off Soderbergh’s film as a contender in order to push all their chips in for writer/director Noah Baumbach’s latest, the yet-to-be-released drama “Marriage Story,” and Martin Scorsese’s crime drama “The Irishman.”
Banderas has a strong likelihood for awards season consideration as well, though voters will be praising his work in Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” rather than his turn as Fonseca.
“The Laundromat” isn’t the kind of film that requires going out of the way to see in theaters but is certainly worth taking a chance on now that it’s available to stream.