“The secret life of money“, a phrase uttered early into Steven Soderbergh’s new film, would have made a great title for a movie based on the infamous Panama Papers leak of 2016. Instead the indie filmmaking stalwart went with “The Laundromat”, a peculiar title for a rather peculiar movie.
For those who don’t know The Panama Papers refers to the over 11 million documents leaked by an anonymous source who still to this day is only known as “John Doe”. The documents were swiped from the Panamanian law firm of Mossack Fonseca & Co. and contained the shady wheelings and dealings of their extremely wealthy clientele. They revealed that Mossack Fonseca was managing thousands of offshore shell corporations making it easy for millionaires and billionaires from all over the globe to hide money and avoid taxes (among other things).
To varying degrees of success 2015’s “The Big Short” showed you could make financial mumbo-jumbo entertaining and even kinda funny. Soderbergh taps into that with “The Laundromat” but with a much quirkier and even more playful approach. It may not be as scalding as some bloodthirsty viewers would like, but it pulls no punches throughout its off-beat mixture of reality and absurdity.
Right out of the gate we’re introduced to one of the film’s more outlandish angles. Our guides are none other than Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas). Dressed to the nines and bouncing from one absurdly luxurious backdrop to another, the garish pair break the fourth wall in walking us through their version of how the system works. Completely ludicrous but really funny.
Our most human connection comes through Ellen Martin (played by Meryl Streep) who loses her husband Joe (James Cromwell) in a tour boat accident in Lake George, New York. The boat company’s owners (David Schwimmer and Robert Patrick) are stunned to find their insurance policy was issued through a string of non-existent companies operated by a crooked Caribbean broker (Jeffrey Wright). Needless to say it means a much smaller insurance settlement than Ellen was initially promised.
Soderbergh and his writer/frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns use Ellen’s tragedy as a launching point for their loosely wound black comedy/bio-drama. It jumps wildly from one vignette to the next with Mossack and Fonseca occasionally breaking in to introduce a new segment from their own colorful perspective. One features Matthias Schoenaerts and Rosiland Chao doing some shell company jockeying in China. Another sees Nonso Anozie playing a louse of a father who uses his wealth to scam his wife and daughter.
It may sound like a confusing mess and to be honest it kind of is. But you could say that’s the point. It’s a mirror image of the tangled, corrupt maze of shady unregulated money management. Does that make for good entertainment? I actually had more fun with “The Laundromat” than “The Big Short” (which it is inescapably being compared to). Some will say it’s not angry enough (despite its clever but pummeling ending) and other are sure to find it too spasmodic and scattershot. I was surprised at how much I went for it, but not a bit surprised to hear others have not.
VERDICT – 4 STARS