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The Laundromat

Thursday Oct 10, 2019
'The Laundromat'
'The Laundromat'  

If you are looking to be outraged, look no further than "The Laundromat," Steven Soderbergh's breezy new comedy about, well, how we are all screwed... unless we do act up and do something. That warning comes at the end of the film but feels a bit half-hearted. Can outrage drive a movement to alleviate how the global financial market and the laws governing it screw the little person?

In this case, it is Ellen Martin, played with homespun conviction by Meryl Streep, who is happily retired with her husband (James Cromwell) when an act of God throws her life into chaos. While riding a pleasure boat on Lake George, a rogue wave capsizes the boat and her husband dies. She is assured that there will at least be a good settlement (in the 7-figures) from the insurance the boat company has a policy with but learns the hard way that won't be the case. It seems that the insurance policy is invalid due to the fact that the company that owns it was sold to another company, which somehow invalidated it. She gets something, but not much.

Martin is angered and sets out to find out just who owns the company, which sends her to the West Indies island of Nevis — a tax haven that thrives in ownership of shell companies. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (from the book "Secrecy World" by Jake Bernstein) take a page from Adam McKay's "The Big Short" in using easily digestible ways of explaining how a complicated system works, in this case, these shell companies. Martin locates the address of the new owner of the insurance company only to find it is a post office box for a shell company owned by a disreputable businessman (played by Jeffrey Wright) who gets arrested for his shady accounting.

Soderbergh and Burns also adapt McKay's gonzo style, telling a story with many moving parts that climaxes with the release of The Panama Papers — a dump of 11.5 million leaked documents that revealed how the legal use of offshore entities (those shell companies) were used for illegal purposes such as money laundering, tax fraud, and hiding assets. How does this tie back to Martin and her quest to find the truth? You will likely have to see the film (which is in limited release and coming to Netflix).

Acting as convivial hosts are Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Rámon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), who run the law firm of Mossack Fonseca & Co., the firm at the center of the Panama Papers. It is their records that a whistleblower — an administrative assistant who somehow becomes the head of various shell companies — leaks and exposes this worldwide scam. The rub is that most of what they do is perfectly legal in many countries, such as giving these leadership roles to low-level employees who (in many cases) have no understanding of their implications. You don't have to look any further than Delaware to see these practices in action in the United States. Oldman, with a thick German accent, and Banderas guide the audience through a maze of legalese, as well as detailing their own history with international finance.

But while there is a whistleblower, in the person of that anonymous Panamanian administrative assistant (also played by Streep in a dark wig and an alarming prosthetic nose), Soderbergh's film doesn't follow the docudrama style of "Erin Brockovich" instead it is closer to the anecdotal narrative style of "Contagion" — numerous stories that fit together into an intricate mosaic. In one a wealthy businessman (Nonso Anozie) is caught having sex with his daughter's college roommate and attempts to bribe her with ownership of a 20 million dollar shell company not to tell his wife; in another a British businessman (Matthias Schoenaerts) extorts a corrupt Chinese official's wife, with disastrous results for all; and a third follows what happens when Ellen attempts to buy a Las Vegas condo only to lose it when the realtor (a steely Sharon Stone) decides to sell to a pair of Russian businessman because they paid cash.

As if to underscore its didactic nature, the story is told with chapter headings ("The meek are screwed" reads one) that make it clear the entire system is rigged against the average person. It is a bit glib, but the film's point is clear and told with such energy and verve, it is difficult not to be entertained. Why Streep appears in two roles is, at first, a bit disconcerting to see her in the second; but her casting makes sense in the film's final image, which offers a moment of hope in this otherwise cynical exercise in truth-telling. Even the filmmakers are in on it, at one point it is explained that the director employs five shell companies and the screenwriter one. Perhaps the message is, if you can't beat them, join them.

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