When the so-called Panama Papers—the massive dump of documents from the Panama-based legal offices of Mossack and Fonseca that revealed how the financial-services firm systematically helped create hundreds of shell companies, all designed to help the wealthy and powerful avoid paying taxes while providing next-to-no services and screwing their nominal customers—occurred in 2015, it provoked outrage. But like the details behind the international financial meltdown of 2008-2009, it was a complex, devious business, its intricacies hard for ordinary people to grasp, and so apart from a general assessment that it provided still more proof of how the elites coast along on a system rigged against everyone else, it’s faded from scrutiny.
Working from Jake Bernstein’s book “Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite,” screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh attempt to explain the scandal through a series of tragicomic vignettes introduced by Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) themselves in “The Laundromat.” The effort is comparable to what Adam McKay did with the world economic collapse of 2008 in “The Big Short,” but the tone is less aggressive, more in synch with the loopy nonchalance that Soderbergh brought to another fact-based farce in 2009’s “The Informant!” The result is instructive, but in a genially rueful way that’s consistently both amusing and engrossing—and, in the end, a little depressing in its message that things don’t seem to change much.
The film uses Mossack and Fonseca as a linking device, with Oldman and Banderas appearing periodically either to offer explanatory narration—as in an opening disquisition on the origin of money and the development of banking mechanisms, culminating in the invention of euphemistically dubbed “financial instruments” to allow individuals and corporations to hide wealth and pay no taxes—but including satiric dramatizations of their office’s connivance in the wrongdoing the documents revealed. The two actors have a ball in the roles, donning various costumes to perform a sort of running vaudeville routine in what amounts to a cinematic sketch revue.
But the narrative uses another connective mechanism—the continuing saga of Michigan housewife Ellen Murphy (Meryl Streep) whose husband (James Cromwell) is one of twenty people killed when their tour boat is swamped by a sudden wave on Lake George, where they’re on their way to revisit Niagara Falls for their anniversary. But she gets stiffed on the expected insurance compensation: as a conversation between the boat owners (David Schwimmer and Robert Patrick) reveals, an attempt to save on costs led to their taking a policy with a shell company that refuses to pay on grounds that the policy had lapsed. To add insult to injury, the Las Vegas condo she’d planned to buy is stolen from under her—as the real estate broker (Sharon Stone) blithely informs her—by a couple of rich Russian oligarchs.
Ellen undertakes to investigate the shady business, going to Nevis, the island where the sham company is based, for an explanation. There we’re given a vignette about the so-called firm’s director (Jeffrey Wright), a fellow whose chicanery, it turns out, is not just professional but personal.
Ellen’s investigations pivot into other similar tales, one about a wealthy African entrepreneur (Nonso Anozie), whose dalliance with his daughter’s college roommate leads to the revelation that he’s bamboozled both his wife and his daughter, and another in which a sleazy British financial fixer (Matthias Schoenaerts) falls afoul of the wife (Rosalind Chao) of a Chinese Communist official deeply involved in corruption at a time when the regime is frowning on such practices. Meanwhile back in Panama City what eventually proves a major turning-point occurs when a hapless secretary in the Mossack-Fonseca operation, who’s the on-paper director of many of the firm’s shell companies, dies in a slapsticky accident and has to be replaced with another clueless underling. It’s a change that explains the movie’s surprise twist.
As one might expect, Streep catches Ellen’s frantic every-woman attitude to perfection, and together with Oldman and Banderas carries the movie, though the contributions of supporting players like Wright, Anozie and Chao shouldn’t be overlooked. They’re all nifty pieces in a cinematic mosaic that’s substantive in terms of its overarching point while managing to be grimly amusing, if not hilarious, in its various parts.
Soderbergh, serving one again as cameraman (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) and editor (under the pseudonym Mary Ann Bernard) as well as director, keeps things moving along spiffily, with a good deal of visual stimulation in the highly theatrical Oldman-Banderas segments.
“The Laundromat” is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, and in the end it’s kind of dispiriting, telling us that the system of inequity might hit a road bump like the Panama Papers from time to time, but after a brief hiccup will just keep chugging along—unless we ninety-nine percenters unite to do something about it. Even if that’s unlikely to happen, it turns out to be quite a bit of fun being reminded of how bad things are by a crew as talented as Soderbergh and his estimable ensemble, even if some of them are—as a witty in-joke suggests—not members of our economic super-majority themselves.