*** out of ****
(for strong language, some sexual content, and disturbing images)
Released: October 19, 2019
Runtime: 95 minutes
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Nonso Anozie, Jessica Allain, Matthias Schoenaerts, Rosalind Chao, David Schwimmer, Robert Patrick, Melissa Rauch
Steven Soderbergh uses a whole lot of fiction – and an indomitable Meryl Streep – to get to the truth.
Having a playful time with an unconscionable reality, The Laundromat takes a Big Short approach to unpacking the layered complexities of the Panama Papers. Those were the documents that exposed a surreptitious infrastructure of offshore entities, ones constructed to help the world’s one-percent hide their ill-gotten gains from government tax codes.
These shelters stashed riches that were unethically earned from illegal business practices (like insurance scams) that bilked unsuspecting victims, ranging from small businesses to the middle class.
There’s too much to unpack in a ninety-minute run time, but Soderbergh and his go-to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who’s working from Jake Bernstein’s book “Secrecy World”) make a generally successful and entertaining run at it.
Satirically dramatizing events that are (as the intro puts it) “Based On Actual Secrets”, the screenplay contrives fictional dealings and people to help streamline how Mossack Fonesca & Co. — a Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider — built a tangled web of money laundering and corruption on an international scale. Their vast organization crisscrossed and implicated elite circles all around the globe: corporate, governmental, legal, and other realms of the privileged and famous.
The firm’s namesakes, Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca Mora, are portrayed with extreme liberties (bordering on caricature, which isn’t a bad thing) by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas. They’re used primarily as conduits of information. Breaking the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience (as Soderbergh’s roving camera tracks them all the way, often in well-staged oners), Oldman and Banderas create a Mossack/Fonseca tag team that zips through convoluted details. In effect, the duo turns the traditional role of a documentary narrator into two flamboyant braggarts, each one gleefully unrepentant.
Their information dumps help buffer and tie together various short narratives, each providing a case study of how the wealthy utilized the Mossack Fonesca schemes and how the innocent were affected.
Most of these stories are completely made up (except for one China-set episode, based on the actions of a real ruthless woman), but they work as perfect parables to reveal logistical machinations and human consequences. They also give Soderbergh some likely-needed wiggle room, freeing him from a long list of story rights and (more likely) various and sundry legal liabilities.
The whole concept works, although the material could’ve easily been expanded into (and better served as) a limited run series, an anthology of intriguing, harrowing tales. Soderbergh has fun emphasizing the absurdity revealed through each one (with his Oceans Trilogy composer David Holmes providing a breezy, cheeky jazz bossa nova), but his stylish irony also maximizes the very real personal toll for those harmed and the cumulative crushing fallout.
Meryl Streep leads a compelling ensemble made up of stars, recognizable character actors, some strong unknowns, and occasional big name camoes. Her story (of a dogged widow who uncovers way more than she bargained for) anchors the film, but it then gives way to others, each offering its own provocative snapshot of this worldwide scandal.
There’s also a bit of creative casting in a recurring role that isn’t as cleverly disguised as Soderbergh seems to think it is (unless it isn’t by design), but it serves The Laundromat’s ultimate payoff in a rather ingenious way, landing on a final image that is truly inspired.