It takes three to make a trend so congratulations everyone, we did it. With The Laundromat, Steven Soderbergh's peppier follow-up to his February Netflix airball, High Flying Bird, we can now officially state that a very small sub-genre is underway. Following Adam McKay's The Big Short and Vice (both of which were nominated for best picture Oscars), here comes another dark comedy with numerous reality breaks that explains a political and economic outrage. Laughter and impotent rage often make good companions.
The Laundromat is centered on the Panama Papers leak, a banking scandal from 2015 that I didn't understand then and, quite frankly, don't really understand now. The basic gist, though, I can tell you: the house always wins, the system is rigged, and the meek shall not inherit the Earth.
These truisms are made manifest in off-shore shell companies which ensure that rich people in the United States and elsewhere can effectively hide their money from taxes and lawsuits, and it isn't even illegal. And even when it is illegal, it's next to impossible to bring anyone to justice. Frustrating!
Also: not exactly cinematic. But Soderbergh and frequent screenwriting collaborator Scott Z. Burns (The Informant! and writer-director of the upcoming Amazon release The Report) have a plan. The two (real) scoundrels who headed up a Panama-based company, Jürgen Mossack (implied in the film to be a son of escaped Nazis) and Ramón Fonseca (a former United Nations lawyer who shrugged off his ethics when he realized how easy it was to get rich), are played seductively and sleazily by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas. Wearing white suits and strolling along beaches, they narrate a biography of something we all deal with but few understand: money. Why we need it, what it can do, and how the people who have it can always find ways to get more.
We also meet the people whose lives are destroyed while the rich get richer. Meryl Streep is outstanding as Ellen Martin, a widow in an actual boating accident from 2005, who is stunned to discover a sizable settlement check is not headed her way. The cruise company, we learned, shopped around for insurance, found what looked like a totally legitimate company, but it was actually a scam. Now that large claims are made everyone has gone ghost, no one is culpable and many livelihoods, let alone a sense of justice, are ruined.
Oldman and Banderas' direct address spiels are more of a clothesline from which to hang different episodes, something that works well for Netflix. (Reviews from the film's theatrical run were quite mixed; I think this is one that will benefit from home viewing.) There are a number of different narrative cul-du-sacs, the best being one involving an African businessman (Game of Thrones' Nonso Anozie) raising his family in Los Angeles. He's corrupt and unethical and uses capital for his immoral gains, but he isn't breaking any laws. He and his daughter (Jessica Allain) have a throwdown about the cruelty of adulthood that is one of the bleakest, but strangely funniest, scenes in a movie this year. (Larry Willmore as a spineless lawyer is thrown in for good measure.)
Another sequence set in China features Rosalind Chao and Matthias Schoenaerts and shows the absurd endpoint of government corruption (with a macabre detour into organ harvesting); Sharon Stone, in yet another section, makes a quite funny appearance as a vapid Las Vegas realtor.
One comes away from The Laundromat depressed (even with a cheeky twist in the closing moments), but at least now you know why every company lists Delaware as their headquarters. Nothing is going to be done about corruption until it's labeled and understood. These things tend to fly over my head (I've Googled terms like "capital gains" a hundred times and I still don't know what they are) but for people more attuned than me, this could inspire people to fight the good fight for economic justice.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
The Laundromat is streaming now on Netflix