If economics is the “dismal science,” how do so many clever, entertaining films manage to be made about it? We had J. C. Chandor’s Margin Call in 2001, Adam McKay’s The Big Short in 2015 and even a documentary featuring former secretary of labor Robert Reich, Jesse Kornbluth’s Inequality for All, in 2013 – every one of them an enjoyable and eye-opening couple of hours at the movies. Now Steven Soderbergh takes up the torch of outrage over how today’s arcane structures of shell corporations and untaxable offshore holdings screw the little guy in The Laundromat, with a screenplay by his frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns that’s based on Jake Bernstein’s book Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite.
One thing all these films have in common is a willingness to step outside the “Show, don’t tell” mantra of conventional narrative and make liberal use of exposition, in order to ensure that the viewer understands economic structures that were intentionally designed to be so eyeball-glazing to the uninitiated that no one can stay motivated long enough to ask awkward questions about why said structures exist and whom they serve. That’s not an easy task to pull off within the film medium. Soderbergh bites the bullet by framing his story in a highly stylized series of fourth-wall-breaking speeches by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, the two attorneys at the heart of the immense money-laundering network finally brought down by the 2015 Panama Papers data breach.
Strolling and lounging about ridiculously fake-looking sets, dressed in exaggeratedly posh suits, the two partners revel in their ill-gotten gains as they disingenuously rationalize their ethics-be-damned methods. Oldman is particularly off-putting, sporting a terrible hairpiece and spewing an even-more-egregious German accent. We know from his Oscar-winning turn as Winston Churchill that he can act persuasively even when encumbered by a pile of prosthetics, so clearly there’s something deliberately over-the-top going on here. It’s theater of the absurd, meant to beat down our reflexive resistance to an economics lecture with laughter.
Mossack and Fonseca are our guides through a loosely connected series of vignettes about individuals on several continents who are power players, cogs or victims in a convoluted network of corporate entities that exist mainly on paper. Characters who briefly command the spotlight in these mini-yarns are portrayed by the likes of David Schwimmer, Jeffrey Wright, Nonso Anozie, Matthias Schoenaerts and Rosalind Chao, with brief cameos from Sharon Stone, Will Forte and Chris Parnell (the latter two billed as Doomed Gringo #1 and Doomed Gringo #2). Viewers may feel a little baffled at times by the episodic construction of the narrative, which seems to reflect the influence of Robert Altman on Soderbergh’s directorial style. But stick with it; ultimately the bits all come together.
Our thread through this labyrinth is supplied by Meryl Streep as Ellen Martin, the fictionalized widow of one of the victims of the 2005 wreck of the tour boat Ethan Allen on Lake George. Her insurance claim falls through the holes in a multileveled net of phony corporations that have bought one another out to a point where there’s no accountability left, and mild-mannered Ellen gets ticked off enough to pursue the perpetrators with increasingly singleminded purpose. It’s the sort of character that Streep can embody in a few deft brushstrokes: the middle-aged, middle-class woman who seems like a harmless dingbat on the surface, only to reveal a core of steely resolve when that surface gets scratched.
While some degree of justice prevails by the end of The Laundromat, there are no real winners, and the corrupt system that the story uncovers remains pervasive and unchecked so long as politics are driven by money. Ellen’s moment of vindication is uplifting only in the sense that it conveys some hope that human choices can occasionally make some difference in the usual outcomes of the agents of greed acting with total impunity. The need for profound structural change is our main takeaway. As cinema, The Laundromat isn’t going to work for everybody, but it may be the most genuinely politically subversive new movie that you’ll see in 2019. Not bad for a feature film crafted to entertain first and educate second.