This is a repost of our review from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. The Laundromat is now streaming on Netflix.
With his latest film (and second of 2019) The Laundromat, versatile filmmaker Steven Soderbergh essentially directs a Wikipedia entry with a point of view. That’s not a dig. The film chronicles the so-called Panama Papers incident from 2015, during which 11.5 million documents were leaked that detailed information on over 200,000 offshore entities. This information unveiled large-scale tax avoidance and illegal activities from various wealthy persons in positions of power. It was also, well, difficult to explain and tough to boil down to a concise “here’s why this is bad” argument. Enter Soderbergh and his frequent screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who use Jake Bernstein’s book Secrecy World as source material to craft a largely compelling, often funny, and ultimately infuriating ensemble film that uses its starpower, direct address, and an unforgettable final shot to call U.S. citizens to action.
The Laundromat is not a traditional film, and that’s clear from the opening sequence, in which Gary Oldman’s Jürgen Mossack and Antonio Banderas’ Ramón Fonesca—partners of the law firm tied to the Panama Papers, Mossack Fonesca—directly address the audience to begin this tale of how the wealthy and powerful hide and grow their money. They serve a similar purpose to the celebrity interludes of The Big Short, but do so with incredible gusto as Oldman’s accent can only be described as a more joyous Werner Herzog.
The audience is then whisked away to the story of Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), a mild-mannered woman with heartbreaking ties to one of the shell companies involved in the Panama Papers. Following an incident, she begins her own little investigatory quest that puts her in contact with some of the major players involved in maintaining this vast fortune. She subsequently goes all Murder, She Wrote on Mossack Fonesca.
The Laundromat is a film that shifts into little side stories here and there to explain a particularly convoluted piece of thievery or drive home a point, making room for delightful cameos from the likes of Will Forte, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Nonso Anosie. It’s tough to call it a straight fictional narrative because it’s not really interested in being that—the direct address from Oldman and Banderas is explaining to you, the viewer, what’s going on, and Streep’s character provides a conduit through which to portray the very real emotional impact these actions had on people. It’s The Big Short by way of Traffic, but it’s entirely self-aware.
A recurring theme throughout the film is the quoting of the Bible passage, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” It’s hard to find solace in that passage when looking at a world full of economic inequality, one in which the system is run by people who stand to benefit from lax tax codes and thus have little incentive to incite change. The Panama Papers revealed an entire world to which the non-wealthy are not privy, and one in which the same rules by which the middle and lower class are governed have little impact.
Make no mistake, The Laundromat has a very strong political point of view, and Soderbergh and Burns use this entertaining synopsis of the Panama Papers scandal to inspire further action. Soderbergh is keenly aware of his own hypocrisy in a cute moment courtesy of Antonio Banderas, but it’s Streep who is the conduit for the most significant rallying cry.
It’s best to look at The Laundromat as more of a dramatized summation of an extremely complicated, albeit important event. That kind of makes it a perfect fit for Netflix, where it will debut. It’s a bit of a tough sell to get someone to the theater for a movie like this, but in an age where documentaries are booming on the streaming service, this extremely well crafted “infotainment” piece is an easy recommend. Want to learn more about the Panama Papers and their larger implications while also getting joyous performances from talented movie stars? Soderbergh has you covered.