The Panama Papers – the massive exposé of hundreds of shady shell companies, dating back to the 1970s – was revealed in 2016 by a mysterious whistle-blower known only as ‘John Doe.’ It’s a fascinating tale of greed and deceit and one that was inevitably going to find its way onto cinema screens sooner or later. Furthermore, Steven Soderbergh is exactly the kind of director I would have picked to helm such a project. And yet, The Laundromat doesn’t quite work – mostly, I think, because of its scatter-shot approach.
It starts well. We are introduced to Jurgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) wandering through a variety of exotic locations as they chat direct to camera, sip cocktails and explain that shell companies aren’t exactly illegal, they are simply ways of ensuring that billionaires won’t have the tiresome burden of paying all those pesky taxes they owe.
No big deal. The way they tell it, it sounds almost reasonable. But it can more succinctly be described in two words. Money laundering.
And then we meet Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), recently widowed when she and her husband were on a cruise on Lake George and their hire boat capsized. First Ellen learns that the insurance policy she and her hubby took out for the trip won’t pay up because the firm they bought it from has itself been purchased by a shell company known only as ‘Nevis.’ And then her plans to retire to a condo that overlooks the place where she and her husband first met are brutally scuppered when the apartment is purchased – for cash – by a couple of Russian oligarchs.
Understandably miffed, she decides to devote some time to investigating the dealings of Nevis…
So far, so good, but it is at this point that screenwriter Scott Z. Burns takes us on a whistle-stop tour around the globe, to meet other people who, because of the wheelings and dealing of Messrs Mossack and Fonseca, are the nominal owners of shell companies, purportedly worth millions of dollars, but in reality not worth the paper they are printed on. African billionaire Charles (Nonso Anonzie) is attempting to pay off his wife and daughter over an affair he’s been having with a teenage girl, by making them the ‘owners’ of two such companies – and, in China, Madame Gu (Rosalind Chao) will seemingly go to any lengths to protect the reputation of her husband, whose main method of generating income seems to be trading in human organs.
These side-stories whizz past and aren’t investigated deeply enough to make them feel like part of the overall narrative arc. The unfortunate effect is that, by the time we get back to Ellen Martin’s quest, much of the story’s momentum has been lost. The film is by no means terrible, but it is unfocused – and even a late reveal (which I have to admit I didn’t see coming) fails to salvage it.
There’s certainly food for thought here. It’s interesting to note that the victims focused on in these stories are not the poor and impoverished, but middle-class people who’ve failed to realise that they are toiling at the behest of the greedy rich, whose paramount intention is to hang on to every penny they have generated, with no concern for the human wreckage left in their wake. It’s also sobering to learn that Mr Mossack and Mr Fonseca were able to walk away from this debacle with what amounts to little more than slapped wrists. Because, you know, it’s not really illegal…
For a winter evening stuck at home, this provides a decent night’s entertainment, but it certainly won’t figure among Steven Soderbergh’s best films – and there’s surely a more definitive adaptation of the Panama Papers story waiting somewhere in the wings.