Based on “Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite” by Jake Bernstein “The Laundromat” chronicles the rot that festers on the corrupt body of our financial institutions.
Divided into chapters with names like “Secret Number One: The Meek Are Screwed,” “The Laundromat” is a funny, star-studded portmanteau of thematically linked stories involving tax loopholes, exploitation and financial malfeasance. “All these stories are about money,” says Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), “the secret lives of money.” Like “The Big Short” it takes the spoonful-of-sugar-to-help-the-medicine-go-down approach to telling a story so dripping with bile you have to laugh to stop from crying.
Meryl Streep is at the helm of this cinematic op-ed playing Ellen Martin, a steely woman whose husband’s death leads her by the nose into the world of fake insurance policies and a shady Panama City law firm run by slicksters Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca. The flamboyant represent “drug lords, sex traffickers and destroyers of the planet” and also colorfully narrate the action. “Tax avoidance and tax evasion,” says Mossack. “The line between them is as thin as a jailhouse wall.” They’re more interested in the shell companies they control that help line the pockets of their very wealthy clients than the regular Joes affected by their actions. “Bad is such a big word for such a small word.”
As the story splinters into chapters, cameos from Jeffrey Wright (as a secretive insurance broker), Nonso Anozie (as a billionaire who tries to buy his way out of trouble) and David Schwimmer (as a business person screwed by his insurance company) pile up, revealing personal aspects of the dirty business of money laundering. The story wanders here and there but Streep stays on course, lending this ragged movie a strong emotional core.
“The Laundromat” features lively performances—I’m looking at you Oldman and Banderas—timely commentary about whistleblowers and fraud and a rousing fourth-wall-breaking ending and yet, feels like less than the sum of its parts. Director Steven Soderbergh provides some well-crafted big moments but the stories are too far flung and too brief to inspire any real interest in the characters. They come and go with little development (save for Martin), often representing ideas rather than fully formed characters.
Streep plays a double role, an ill-advised choice that feels like a stunt and doesn’t lend much to the telling of the tale, but wraps things up with a wake-up call, asking basic questions—Who is accountable? Where and how do you get justice?—that put a period on this story but should be a starting point for more discussion and thought.