Netflix's 'The Laundromat' review: A layman's guide to the Panama Papers leak sugarcoated with humor and a stellar cast
The "fairytale" vignettes from the Panama Papers leak are stories that need to be told but are usually lost in jargon and statistics. Soderbergh tries to rectify this with mixed results.
Meryl Streep! Gary Oldman! Antonio Banderas! Sharon Stone (in a brief cameo)! Netflix really did pull out the stops on this one. But the good thing about throwing a lot of money to get a cast like this, and a director like Steven Soderbergh, is that you will pull in the audience to see a film about 'boring' issues of tax evasion, fraud, and money laundering through shell companies in tax havens like the British Virgin Island, Panama, the Carribean islands and US states like Delaware.
Unlike heist movies like the 'Ocean' films, it is a little difficult to spin a delightful yarn about the real-world, 'legal heists' by the wealthy, powerful and the criminal. So, Soderberg uses the unlikely but highly effective comic duo of Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas to give us a masterclass about the "secret" life of money in the globalized world. As the villains of the Panama Paper leaks, Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) - who ran the Mossack Fonseca & Co. law firm providing "offshore financial services" to the wealthy - function as unreliable narrators in the film.
They keep telling us that "it is all legal", trying to shrug off their moral culpability, as they string together the stories of their clients from the US, Mexico and China (making detours along the way to their collaborators in tax havens) as "fairytales" about money. Only these fairytales are true accounts about how the rich stay rich and the lawyers who help them do it by using loopholes in the law and misusing "privacy clauses" to hide the financial trickery involved in evading taxes, running insurance scams, laundering money, and siphoning off the profits of criminal activities by setting up offshore shell companies in tax havens.
We are introduced to the politically powerful couple in China who used their services to launder their bribes, the "family man" Charles who uses the shell trust fund to cheat his daughter and wife from getting any of his millions after he is caught cheating with his daughter's roommate, and "the Russians" who use black money to buy up condos in New York and Las Vegas using a shell company through their real estate agent (Sharon Stone). We also meet people like Boncamper who knowingly commit fraud by becoming "nominee directors" of these shell companies (earning $15 for every signature on incorporation papers) and clueless collaborators like Mia Beltran (a Mossack Fonseca & Co. employee) who has no idea that the blank "forms" she is signing will be used to set up shell companies with her as their "owner."
Playing the "common woman", who is on the "losing" end of this shell game, is the fictional character of Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep). After losing her husband in a tragic boating accident, she also loses out on the insurance payout because the cruise line has bought insurance from a fraud shell company. Afterward, when she is outbid by "the Russians" when she tries to buy her dream condo, she becomes obsessed by tracking these shell companies and trying to get some accountability for what she has gone through.
The parts with Oldman and Banderas work the best, their German and Latino accents mingling seductively as they tell these bedtime stories of financial fraud. The parts with Meryl Streep, not so much. A lot of her dialogue comes across as dry and expositional. She is supposed to represent "the meek" who have no way of fighting the system that is built on the complicit understanding between the rich and the political elite who have subverted the law and public policies for personal gain.
But her sequences, (including the surprise reveal at the end) feels clunky and heavy-handed, especially her lecture at the end. We don't know if we are witnessing Meryl Streep, the actress, or Meryl Streep, the activist. Since she is a fictional character, she has the advantage of being present in all the important "reveal" moments as a witness, standing in for us, "ordinary folk." But Meryl Streep, as a persona, is not "ordinary", no matter how hard she acts. And when she pulls off the wig in the last scene to transform into Lady Liberty, even the semblance of being a stand-in for us disappears and her role becomes an act of condescension.
All of what is shown and told in this film are stories that need to be told. But news stories and documentaries can't grab the attention of the general public because of their jargonized delivery of facts, figures, and statistics. Soderbergh tries to rectify this by humanizing these statistics in The Laundromat. But, ultimately, the film falls a little short on the execution.
'The Laundromat' is available to view on Netflix from October 18.