Monday, October 21, 2019

The Laundromat (2019)

A fairly typical Netflix Original offering in as much that it has been granted a far superior cast and director than the material appears to deserve. (See also Velvet Buzzsaw.) 

Stephen Soderbergh is at the helm, guiding appearances by, amongst others, Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas, Gary Oldman, Sharon Stone (OMG!), Matthias Schoenaerts and Jeffrey Wright. The presence of Will Forte, Melissa Rauch and David Schwimmer generates an unwarranted expectation of comic relief.

It's one of those movies, increasingly popular after 2008, where a slightly misadvised attempt has been made to dramatise a non-fiction work about high finance and the bad behaviour of the world's elites, in this instance Jake Bernstein's account of the Panama Papers scandal, entitled Secrecy World

Banderas and Oldman play the titular partners of Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca, at one time the world's largest provider of offshore financial services, at least until somebody leaked a cache of its sensitive client documents dating from 1970-2015. 

Here they also function as a sort of chorus, strolling through its loose collection of cameos and other mini-narratives, attempting to make complex financial arrangements that much more accessible with pithy observations. Oldman's accent is part Jürgen Klinsman, part Werner Herzog. 

Important moments in the story are set in China, Nevis and, of course, Panama. Yet the production never left the confines of the USA, which results in some painfully stereotypical renditions of the supposed locations. 

I found the representation of affluent Africans just as uncomfortable as the stark alternative of starving Africans would have been, especially as the scenes involving them have all too obviously been constructed solely for the purpose of explaining how bearer shares work. Overall the tone is both moralistic and didactic. Jocular too, though not to the point of actually funny. 

Meryl Streep's character serves to ground this exposé in the everyday calculations of 'the meek', before leading us in stages towards the more rarefied realities of the shell companies of Panama and the 'politburo' of the People's Republic. 

But here's the thing. Accidental death is quite commonplace in Guatemala. I'm onto my second hand when it comes to using fingers to count the individuals of my acquaintance here who have departed this way. Yet 'ordinary Joes' in Central America have almost no expectation of a seven figure USD payout — with the resulting opportunity to afford a luxury Vegas apartment — following a fatal accident in which no one is obviously to blame. 

There are some assumptions in this film that perhaps reveal the corruption in American culture to be more systemic than this finger-pointing at unprincipled foreign lawyers and their elite clientele would otherwise allow for. 

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