Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat” is a fluky contradiction that works. I’m tempted to call it a brain-teaser — not because it’s some sort of clockwork mystery caper that toys with your expectations, but because it’s a true-life journalistic drama about the new world order of offshore financial corruption (which gets shrouded, by design, in the new world disorder of financial gobbledygook), and it’s a movie you’ve got to put on your thinking cap to watch. But then, Soderbergh knows how to make using your head fun. “The Laundromat” is Soderbergh at his most playful, and also Soderbergh at his most wonkish, and damned, in this case, if the two don’t chime together.
Made for Netflix, “The Laundromat” flashes by in a brisk and buoyant 90 minutes, but it’s about something that can seem, at times, ludicrously complicated: the scandal of the Panama Papers, which revealed, with a detail that hadn’t been reported in the mainstream media, the staggering network of shell companies, many located on tropical islands, in which the global financial elite (corporations, wealthy citizens, criminals) conceal their assets to avoid paying taxes, or just to stash the funds, period. (If your profits come from gun running or sex trafficking, it’s probably a good idea to keep the money invisible.)
A major news story in 2015, the Panama Papers made tangible what a lot of us already, in essence, knew: that the moneyed elite, the people with power, the one percent — whatever you want to call them — didn’t just have “advantages.” They were playing by an entirely different set of rules, living in another system. A rigged system. A global racket. One that’s been engineered, often through the numbing logistics of financial jargon, to be a smokescreen.
The trouble is, how do you tell that story and get people to feel like they’re watching an actual movie, rather than just, you know, the illustrated version of a 12,000-word Atlantic magazine cover story? Soderbergh has figured out a way. He has designed “The Laundromat” as a light drama that’s also a tongue-in-cheek lecture — a kind of sardonic meta analysis of our corruption as acted out by a handful of its players and pawns.
Based on “Secrecy World,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jake Bernstein’s book-length exposé of the shadow economy, “The Laundromat” doesn’t pretend to make us “care” about the characters we’re watching. But partly for that reason, it’s a more cutting and compelling movie than “The Big Short.” It’s also the first film I’ve seen by a major director that feels like it belongs on Netflix more than it does in a theater. At home, you can rewind it to catch a detail or two you might have missed, and not have to pretend that it’s more than a droll ingenious sketchbook of a movie.
The Panama Papers, a series of documents that revealed the details of more than 200,000 offshore entities, got leaked to journalists by an anonymous source inside the Panamanian law firm of Mossack Fonseca (the world’s fourth largest provider of offshore corporate financial services). The firm’s two founders, the German-born Jürgen Mossack and his Panamanian partner, Ramón Fonseca, are played in the film by Gary Oldman, chewing on a Chermin accent with hambone bonhomie, and Antonio Banderas, who matches him in eager, self-justifying volubility. They’re not just the film’s narrators, they’re its deviously enthused hosts, kicking things off with a prelude in which they explain the concept of money from the ground up, starting with the barter system of old, moving onto cash, then credit, then all the words (from stocks and bonds to derivatives) we now use to dress up the concept of … money.
These explanations, which the two, clad in glittery suits, deliver with absurd sincerity in a variety of settings, help us absorb the information we need to, but they’re also enacting the film’s theme: that in finance, starting in the late 1970s, the how of things grew so complicated that it started to trump the why of things. Mossack and Fonseca are power brokers, but they’re also cogs: bureaucrats guiding money into the right (fake) coffers. That’s the joke, the tragedy, the scandal. (That the top 60 American corporations use shell companies to weasel out of paying $79 billion a year in taxes is the crime.)
“The Laundromat” is structured, theoretically, as a whistleblower saga, designed to show us how the Panama Papers came to light. But the way the story was uncovered almost doesn’t matter; what Soderbergh is interested in is how the world of it all works. He brings a handful of minor and major players to life as characters, all with a tone of deadpan but slightly chortling can-you-believe-this? reportorial glee.
One by one, we’re drawn, ever so blithely, into their stories. There’s plucky Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), a coarse but sweet Middle American nobody, in a bedraggled gray-blonde mop, who loses her husband (James Cromwell) on a tour-boat accident on Lake George, then learns she’s not going to receive the insurance payout she deserved. The reason? The boat business signed a contract with an on-the-cheap insurance company, which was taken over by another company, and it turns out that none of these companies even … exist. They’re shell companies, abstract entities that do nothing.
Ellen, after learning that the retirement condo she was planning to purchase in Vegas has been bought out from under her by a Russian oligarch, decides to get to the bottom of why she was cheated out of a better insurance settlement. (We see her fantasy of blasting away in the office with a shotgun.) So she takes a trip to visit the locale of the United Insurance Group — an address in Nevis, the popular tourist spot in the West Indies. That’s where the shell game starts to unravel.
The funny thing is, Soderbergh has staged “The Laundromat” as if it were the dramatic equivalent of a series of shell companies. We think, at first, that Ellen is going to emerge, in her schlub-in-a-windbreaker way, as some unlikely Erin Brockovich heroine; but no, that’s not what happens. Each of the tales Soderbergh tells is a kind of deflection, an illustration of hanky-panky that isn’t, in itself, very significant but that fits into a larger mosaic of corruption and deceit.
At one point, the movie enters the soap-opera zone when it’s sidetracked into the tale of Charles (Nonso Anozie), a gently imposing African-born tycoon who is carrying on an affair with his college daughter’s roommate. When she learns of her dad’s predation, his response is simple: He will pay her off by giving her the “bearer shares” of an entire company. His amorality is so total it’s funny (but in the end it’s even worse than we thought; with offshore, there’s always another layer). A lethal anecdote set in China, with Matthias Schoenaerts as a smug salesman of shell fraud and Rosiland Chao as the wealthy mark who turns the tables on him, offers a chilling lesson in how corruption, in an authoritarian state, metastasizes in its own way.
Twenty years ago, in “Traffic,” Soderbergh made a teeming wide-canvas ensemble movie, worthy of comparison to Altman or the greatest season of “The Wire,” in which every character — Michael Douglas’ ambivalent drug czar, Benicio del Toro’s gruffly noble Mexican cop, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ ruthless coke-kingpin wife — was juicy and developed enough to have deserved a drama of their own. The movie stitched those stories into a powerful message: It demonstrated, through its very structure, that the drug trade was a vertically integrated business destined to be controlled not by law, but by the law of supply and demand.
In form, “The Laundromat” is “Traffic” lite, and it has a message that’s even more timely and important: The world — our world — is being looted. And here’s how. But this time, Soderbergh works with a let’s-try-it-on prankishness. He divides the movie into lessons with snark titles like “Secret Number One: The Meek Are Screwed.” He has Streep, in disguise, playing a Panamanian office drone whose anonymity turns out to be an in-joke. And Mossack and Fonseca look right into the camera to inform us that shell companies in Delaware (yes, Delaware) are so common that “the director of this film” uses five of them. At the end, though, Soderbergh lets his lead actress take over, turning the film into a grand tour de Streep of “J’accuse!” And why not? Streep and Soderbergh are saying that this issue matters more than their own damn movie. Who are we to disagree?