The version of The Laundromat people imagined as news of its production spread online is radically different to the one we’ve actually gotten. After all, when you hear Steven Soderbergh of Erin Brockovich and Traffic fame is doing a Panama Papers movie starring Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman hot off an Oscar win, images conjure of the filmmaker’s return to prestige cinema.
One imagines a gripping expose of Mossack Fonseca, the law firm exposed in the massive 2015 data leak, and the people that brought them down. From the 70s onward, Mossack Fonseca supplied the wealthy with off-shore business entities or ‘shell corporations’, enabling their clients to commit tax avoidance (which is technically legal), as well as fraud, tax evasion and acts which evaded international sanctions (super illegal). However, when The Laundromat’s poster – featuring a piggy bank wearing sunglasses – was unveiled, followed soon by a zany trailer that felt more in keeping with Soderbergh’s later period work like The Informant! and Logan Lucky, people were unsure what to expect.
Essentially a string of vignettes centring around people across the globe impacted by the firm mentioned above’s activities, the connecting tissue is the figures of Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca (Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, both delightful) – the people behind it. They’re fourth-wall breaking narrators (a la The Big Short, but less dumbed down and better), explaining to viewers their business’ practices while arguing their innocence.
There are moments of genius within The Laundromat. The playful 2001: A Space Odyssey-like opening scene sees cavemen bartering with each other as Mossack and Fonseca explain to viewers the importance of money. This is before transitioning to the type of night club the rich frequent to discuss the concept of credit – “credit is just the future tense of money,” they say.
From here, we jump to the stories of the working-class, the people whose lives are irreparably damaged by Mossack and Fonseca (the film is split into chapters, the first being ‘The Meek Are Screwed’). Of all these, the most significant story is that of Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep). On holidays with her husband (James Cromwell), he and many others die when the cruise boat they are on is knocked over by a tidal wave. Yet, when Ellen tries recouping the insurance money, all she finds are shell companies hiding behind other shell companies.
One has to applaud Soderbergh and his screenwriter Scott Z Burns (writer of both the upcoming Bond movie and The Report, the latter he directed) for deciding to tell the story of the Panama Papers through the victims of these shady business deals – ones they are not even aware of. Every character in the movie – Robert Patrick as the captain of the boat that overturned, David Schwimmer as his son left unpacking through a veritable russian doll of shell companies, Chris Parnell and Will Forte as two unfortunates killed by Mexican drug lords using Mossack Fonseca to hide their ill-gotten gains – is given enough screentime and presence to feel like an actual person, as opposed to just numbers on a dodgy law-firm’s accounts.
However, in The Laundromat’s latter half – around the time a typical film would start wrapping up its loose ends – the film just gets more sprawling. Some of this material is undeniably great. For instance, Mossack and Fonseca admit that while they are aware criminals use their service, they also state that many of their clients are just people taking care of their family.
We then smash-cut to a darkly comic segment of an African businessman living in LA (Nonso Anozie) who cheats on his wife (Nikki Amuka Bird) with his 18-year-old daughter’s best friend. When his child (a great Jessica Alain) discovers his affair and threatens to expose him, he bribes her by handing over one of his $20 million dollar shell companies. When she exclaims she wouldn’t know the first thing about running a company, he hands her a piece of paper and says that’s all she needs.
A segment like this is a beautiful distillation of how extreme wealth corrupts everybody. That said, other vignettes added to the narrative are less successful. This includes one about real-life English businessman Neil Heywood (Matthias Schoenaerts) who was killed by the wife of a famous Chinese politican after he threatened to expose the couple’s dodgy offshore holdings. Clashing with the light, snappy tone of the rest of the film, it’s just too much story for one short segment and should really be a movie in its own right.
On top of this, The Laundromat fizzles out of energy once the viewer realises nothing Streep’s character does has any impact on Mossack and Fonseca’s inevitable downfall. In real life, it was an anonymous source who leaked the Panama Papers. We don’t know if the person behind it was a victim of them, a rival law-firm or a disgruntled employee.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#f42a2a” class=”” size=””]Further Reading | Film Review | Steven Soderbergh’s IPhone Experiment Is Unsane-Ly Good[/perfectpullquote]
With this bombshell arriving in the final moments of the movie, it feels frustrating – like a deus ex machina. But that’s also how real-life works – chaotic and unpredictable. When the film ends with Streep – the actress, not as her two characters (the other being a Latina assistant to Mossack and Fonseca, a weird choice) – addressing the viewer directly about how global systems are rigged by the rich so that they stay in control and that there are plenty of other firms doing the same as Mossack Fonseca now, it feels sudden and abrupt. But also truthful.
As a story about the Panama Papers itself, The Laundromat is deeply flawed. Yet, as a film about how society is so corrupt that the Panama Papers scandal – despite its global rammificaions – only really scratches the surface of what is going on all around us, it does succeed.