‘The Laundromat’: Steven Soderbergh’s Breezy Satire About Offshore Scams
What a strange genre Steven Soderbergh has created: easy-breezy outrage. Or maybe even better: wonkish satire. In The Laundromat, the eclectic director of Schizopolis, the Ocean’s 11 trilogy, and Che tackles the very sexy and totally riveting subject of, you guessed it, shell companies. To further tart up the proceedings, he imposes an outline form, with chapter headings, cutesy animations, fully dramatized digressions, and a righteous-avenger throughline centered around a geriatric crusader named Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep). Think Erin Brokovich, but without the push-up bras and Oscar-thirsty showboating.
Our guides through this schematic cinematic structure are snarky fourth-wall-breaking millionaires Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonion Banderas), who do things like explain the history of currency and massive corporate fraud while they lounge in tuxedos and laugh condescendingly. A pulse-pounder it is not. But you’ll chuckle more than you expect.
“Based on Actual Secrets,” the film states at the beginning, setting a tipsy tone for some seriously sober shenanigans. After surviving a fluke tourist-boat accident that took her husband’s life, newly widowed Martin gets screwed over by inadequate corporate insurance. “I trusted someone,” says Matthew Quirk (David Schwimmer), the head of the tourist company whose indemnity policy changed hands and then changed its rules. Now owned by United Reinsurance and based in the Caribbean island of Nevis, the doublespeak wonks now refuse to honor the original agreement to its fullest, opting instead to pay only a fraction of the contract’s initial commitment.
Since she won’t get the compensation she deserves, Martin decides to follow the money and track down who exactly is responsible for the negligence. What she finds is a shady law firm based in Panama City that oversees thousands of dummy businesses. And they’re all set up as tax shelters outside the jurisdiction of most countries, especially the United States. “The world is just men hiding behind piles of papers,” sneers a bitter wife jilted by her fiscally dishonest husband.
THE LAUNDROMAT ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Steven Soderbergh, Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright
Running time: 95 min
Screenwriter and frequent Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns here invoke the same manic energy that crackled in their 2009 financial fraud film The Informant! But while that dark comedy was a narrative burlesque that thrillingly revealed one eye-widening plot twist after another, The Laundromat is quite simply basic from the beginning. These men are ripping you off. And, more infuriatingly, a surprising amount of what they do is technically legal. Just completely unethical.
There are a few head-scratching detours in The Laundromat that distract more than they illuminate. At one point, the movie suddenly focuses on the drama at a graduation day party when daddy’s little girl catches her wealthy father having an affair with her college roommate. Later in the film, another anecdotal set piece involves a harrowing description of how Falun Gong sells human organs. Money plays a central role in each story, but the gear-shifting plays like ADD hiccups instead of thematically fluid transitions. That said, the filmmakers’ tap-dancing instinct is forgivable. How else do you make this number-crunching stuff memorable?
The Panama Papers detailed all the malfeasance when an anonymous source leaked them to the world in 2015. More than 11 million documents revealed money laundering schemes that involved hundreds of thousands of bogus companies. Yet the infuriating behavior continues: 60 companies paid no taxes on $79 billion in 2018, exclaims the film’s epilogue. Streep, breaking character and donning a Brechtian veneer, invokes the Statue of Liberty in a plea for civil action. It’s corny, but it’s rousing. And, in this day and age, absolutely valiant.