“To some, time is just an illusion,” muses offshore legal mogul, Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) when asked by his confused secretary how they’re going to avoid getting caught. In a vacuum, a thought like Mossack’s is ripe for philosophical discussion, but in the context of perpetuating global fraud, it’s just plain crooked. Of course, the subtext would read something like, “How many times have we been over this? Just cook the books, Karen.”
Mossack and literal partner in crime, Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) are the Panama City-based lawyer subjects of director Steven Soderbergh’s new film The Laundromat, “based on actual secrets,” aka the Panama Papers. They’re also the film’s on-screen narrators, leisurely strolling around lavish night clubs, beach cabanas, and casinos in an array of designer suits while staring into the camera and filling us in on the details.
They’re cheeky and charming at first — reminding us they “didn’t write this” while showcasing the kind of legal schmooze they’ve built their law partner career on — but it doesn’t take long to see them as they are: shrewd, greedy, deplorable overlords of an international embezzlement ring that yielded 240,000 scam companies which were upheld by a constant influx of intentionally falsified documents. The title is a reference to the tradition of laundering fronts, albeit much humbler ones that couldn’t get away with shoveling out $3 billion in bribes unless they re-branded as, say, a foreign construction company, like one of Mossack and Fonseca’s.
The Jake Bernstein adaptation was penned by regular producing and screenwriting collaborator, Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote Soderbergh’s The Informant!, Contagion, and Side Effects, and whose first directorial effort, The Report, will arrive soon. Between The Informant!, The Report, and The Laundromat, it’s clear that Burns has a knack for illuminating the corruption of modern history without sacrificing infused education or entertainment (and comedic) value. Though it sits in a wildly uncommon subgenre of film, The Laundromat is much like Adam McKay’s foray into political and economic turmoil of the 21st century with The Big Short and Vice — witty, quick, boisterous, pedagogic, and (mostly) true. With all of them, you have to double check they’re not written by Aaron Sorkin.
The Laundromat is made up of one central story, a slew of peripheral stories that drive the point home and/or explain how things came to be, and the Mossack & Fonseca narration woven throughout. The mini-stories aren’t all necessary, but they’re all welcomed, each one aligning wonderfully with the whole, and most front-loaded with unexpected talent (e.g., David Schwimmer, Sharon Stone, Melissa Rauch, Robert Patrick, Rosalind Chao, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeffrey Wright, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, and Larry Wilmore). Some follow Mossack and Fonseca’s laundering accomplices and others follow their trounced prey. Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) is the centerpiece victim.
Ellen’s a gentle, content elder, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the world harbors corruption, but much more percipient than she lets on. She’s the kind of grandma that, while telling a story to her elementary-aged grandchildren, references the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon without giving context for what any of those words mean, none of which a child would recognize. After a boating accident kills her husband, a series of events sends the ingenuous old woman chasing the ghosts of shell companies, the apt moniker for the fraudulent businesses that she slowly comes to realize are illicit.
The movie is smoothly outlined by five secrets, each one serving as a sort of chapter title. For example, secret #1 states, “The meek are screwed.” The diction is referencing Matthew 5:5, which reads, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the Earth.” The movie proves that the meek are screwed on a socio-economic plane, but the concept evolves beyond that as the film chugs on. It’s not just a Christian concept. It’s a commonly held belief in many faith traditions and a generally agreed upon morality that can be distilled into two words: be kind.
But Ellen is near the end of her life and disaster is upon her. The meek are being trampled while the rich flourish. The first are first and the last are last. “When exactly will the meek inherit the Earth?” she asks, sitting calmly in a Protestant church pew, joining the chorus that cries perennially toward the heavens. We don’t see her lips move because she’s praying. We don’t see her lips move because it’s a silent question. It must be. To ask it aloud would be to risk the dark of being dissatisfied with one’s meekness. But the question rings true for all who do right and face wrong: In a world like this, how does kindness pay off? Will it? Can it? Moreover, why would anyone do something so awful in the first place?
Fonseca tried to make the world a better place, tried to save it. He attempted ethical law practice, and he lays out plainly why he shifted gears: “Long hours, bad pay, and maybe the world doesn’t want to be saved…at some point you decide, ‘Maybe I should just save myself.’” That’s probably true for Fonseca to a certain extent, but it’s a belated truth. Those aren’t the reasons anymore. They ran the operation because they could. They exploited people because they were bored, powerful, and desperate to show off. And how better to strut through the halls of wealth than in your brand new coat made of millions of crushed souls, paid for through exploited bank accounts?
Their law degrees might as well be authorized exploitation certificates. They studied the law so they could master the loopholes, speak inaccessible legalese over everyone’s head, and eventually be filthy stinking rich. At one point, Fonseca rationalizes the egregious wealth of one of his most prominent shell company owners by saying that he’s “just taking care of his wife and daughter.” The line is delivered with such absurdity that you can feel the implicit disgust of Burns’s pen, the derision emanating from Soderbergh’s lens. The excess is suffocating, the truth strident.
This is SoderBurns at their finest: incisive, acerbic, clever, comical, shrewd, and unrelenting — a trenchant critique of the global banking industry as a whole. Soderberghs’ cinematography (he’s been shooting his own films for decades now) is well-executed, but it could’ve used some tweaking. Everything looks overtly clean — not too clean, but falsely clean, like a sorority girl’s Insta-selfie that’s gone through two too many rounds of filters, or a home viewing plagued by motion smoothing lite, emphasis on lite. And I’m not talking about the green screen.
Many of Mossack and Fonseca’s storytelling sequences are intentionally shot in front of green screens with idyllic backdrops as forthright about their falsehood as the narrators themselves. But having two master scam artists rattle off about their crimes in front of fake scenery is a brilliant thematic play that heightens the emphasis on pervasive deceit. The final moments use a similar tactic in order to de- and re-construct reality.
As an Obama speech informs us on screen, people like Mossack and Fonseca usually aren’t breaking U.S. law, but that’s the problem. Bribery, fraud, tax avoidance/evasion, laundering, and embezzlement can be carried out lawfully. Not honestly. It requires gobs of lies and charred hearts, but it’s doable. Hopefully the anonymous publishing of the Panama Papers in April 2016 signal legitimate change in this arena for the future, but if so, those changes are far off. As we’re told in the closing credits, 60 of the largest companies “avoided” $79 billion in taxes last year alone. And that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. Burns is right, “The world is just men hiding behind piles of paper.”