Steven Soderbergh’s new exercise for Netflix is The Laundromat, a broad agitprop comedy written by Scott Z. Burns that’s labored in parts but is, as a whole, sensationally valuable. I say “exercise” because, in the wake of Soderbergh’s “retirement,” he’s working faster than ever and on projects that feel both passionate and dashed off, as if they began with someone (him or someone on his team) sucking a joint dry and announcing, “You know what we should do? No, really, you know what we should do, what we need to do, hear me out, there’s this book on the labyrinthine secret global financial market that could be the, like, the great American legal-heist movie … We will do this!”
It’s not a documentary, which is what you’d expect. A nonfiction film based on Secrecy World — Jake Bernstein’s incisive account of the “Panama Papers” financial scandal — would have played to a small, appreciative audience, with a few people getting worked up enough to post about it on Facebook. (“I know the subject sounds dry, but everyone has to watch this! It’s why there are so many billionaires but our schools have no books!”) But Soderbergh and Burns — like Adam McKay with The Big Short — want to go wider than an educated niche market. They want to lure the poorly educated, by which I mean me and you and everyone we know who isn’t getting rich off an underground economy through which trillions of dollars flow annually. Employing big and medium stars both to play roles and address the audience directly, Soderbergh and Burns want to explain and delight.
Meryl Streep is the commercial hook. She plays Ellen Martin, a middle-class woman set to enjoy her golden years who takes a pleasure boat on New York’s Lake George with her elderly husband (guest star James Cromwell) — who drowns with a lot of others when the boat gets tipped over by a rogue wave. (It’s all very Poseidon Adventure–like, if your SS Poseidon is a cabin cruiser.) Insurance should be a windfall for the survivors, but guest star David Schwimmer has to explain to guest star Robert Patrick that to cut costs, the insurance policy was bought on the cheap and ended up in the hands of a tiny company in the tax haven of Nevis in the West Indies that … I honestly didn’t follow every nuance, but the point is that the entity is an anonymous shell company that’s overseen by guest star Jeffrey Wright as an exec juggling two different families and is about to face a serious accounting in more ways than one.
Burns’s stroke of brilliance is in making the villains of the story our loquacious hosts. Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Rámon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca & Co., greet us in smart tuxedos and invite us behind closed doors to explain How Things Work in the sheltering-one’s-money-from-the-taxman game. They’re blasé in part because almost all of what they do is completely legal, and, however unethical, is in no case a barrier to being invited to the best parties. They nod as low-level employees sign thousand of documents identifying them — the secretaries, the stenographers — as heads of companies headquartered in Panama or the popular, virtually regulation-free state of Delaware. (The free state of Delaware!) Oldman’s Mossack — who comes from a line of Nazis — has an outrageous Cher-man accent and does most of the talking, while Banderas’s Fonseca has the sense to look wary of giving the whole shell game away.
The Laundromat — so named for cleaning money, not clothes — is broken into chapters pegged to secrets of the market, beginning with the assertion that “the meek are screwed.” It’s a glib, shallow, nihilistic message that by the 20-minute mark is thoroughly proven, Streep’s grieving Ellen having been cheated out of a big payout and subsequently humiliated by a realtor (guest star Sharon Stone) selling her dream Vegas apartment to young Russians who’ll pay cash, as they will. In between scenes of Ellen investigating the fraud in the U.S. and abroad, there’s a quasi-sex farce in which a magnate (the fleshy, dryly funny Nonso Anozie) is forced to bribe the daughter who caught him in flagrante with her best friend on the eve of college graduation with ownership of a $20 million shell corporation of her very, very own; and a talky scene with a sting in its tale in which Matthias Schoenaerts as an international businessman airily bargains with Rosalind Chao as a Chinese woman who’d like to keep her transactions secret to allow her toady of a husband to attain higher office. I followed few of the specifics but got the gist. The gist is hard to miss.
A colleague has referred to The Laundromat as a “poor man’s The Big Short.” I would correct that to a “heavily mortgaged middle-class man’s The Big Short,” and add that that is not such a bad thing. The movie is convoluted — as befits its subject — but breezy and fun and engaging enough to make you want to investigate further, especially if you have money to squirrel away. (I kid!) As his own cinematographer, under the name “Peter Andrew,” Soderbergh winds up his actors, points them in the general direction he wants them to go, and follows along eagerly, as if discovering the subject along with the rest of us. Those actors don’t play down to their characters. Their eyes shine with commitment when they break the fourth wall and engage us, many of them having done Brecht onstage and are therefore comfortable navigating between emotional realism, journalism, and exhortation.
The bottom line of The Laundromat is the bottom line: What the rich do with their money to keep from contributing to the greater good while their chosen leaders complain about the lazy, grasping poor is an obscenity. Happily, there are whistle-blowers. The still-unidentified one who gave us the Panama Papers is played here by a star you won’t be able to guess in advance. As for the one in the headlines now, he deserves no less than Daniel Day-Lewis.