NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Few stories seem less suited for the silver screen than the Panama Papers – the massive trove of tax and legal documents leaked from Mossack Fonseca, the disgraced one-stop shop for offshore tax-dodging. Sure, the 11.5 million files included juicy details about the tax-avoidance habits of boldfaced names from the Saudi Arabian monarch to martial artist Jackie Chan. But creating drama out of someone signing 25,000 certificates of incorporation is tough.
Steven Soderbergh’s new film “The Laundromat,” written by Scott Burns and available on Netflix, deserves an “A” for effort. While the dark farce may also merit a “D” for execution, it’s still worth watching for its unglamorous depiction of corrupt wealth – and for having the guts to implicate the entertainment-industrial complex in the mess.
Soderbergh’s unsatisfying film mirrors its putrid subject. In offshore finance, one shell company often leads to another tangentially related one, which, in the end, tends to lead to an empty post office box somewhere warm with few regulations. Similarly, the stories in this film – partially inspired by journalist Jake Bernstein’s nonfiction account of the scandal – are only vaguely connected and don’t easily lead to a broader reveal.
In the central story, Ellen Martin a feisty Michigander played by Meryl Streep, pursues an insurance claim for a boating accident that kills her husband (James Cromwell). She runs into Malchus Irvin Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright), a Nevis-based accounting huckster involved with fake insurance companies – among other frauds.
The cast of characters also includes Nevada’s worst real estate agent, played by Sharon Stone; a businessman (Nonso Anozie) with experience in adultery and bearer shares; and a riff on the Bo Xilai homicidal corruption scandal that rocked China. These vignettes end with unsatisfying conclusions, unanswered questions, and underwhelming villains.
The most obvious baddies are the titular duo, the lawyers Jürgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca. Channeling “The Big Short,” Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas play the pair as campy emcees who break the fourth wall to teach the audience Economics 101 and the basics of offshore tax law. The two are certainly shown to be venal – but they also come across as ludicrous clowns. Unlike other recent portrayals of morally questionable elites, on shows like Showtime’s “Billions” or “Succession” on HBO, “The Laundromat” doesn’t make its corrupt figures appear brilliant or alluring – just pathetic.
Soderbergh doesn’t make a case that these seedy fools are the root cause of the injustice depicted in the film, or that their brief arrest will fix tax loopholes, stamp out money laundering, or reduce income inequality. That’s because they’re not criminal masterminds or masters of the universe – just opportunistic leeches feeding off a broken global financial system.
Soderbergh winks at Hollywood’s complicity in this morally reprehensible financial framework. The film’s most telling direct-to-audience remarks are the offhand comments that even the film’s director and writer have set up shell companies. Whether or not this is true is beside the point. What matters is that he’s calling out the entertainment industry on its hypocrisy.
Actors and filmmakers often fall over each other to promote progressive causes and slam Wall Street – even as many of them set up complicated trusts and accept funding for their projects from questionable sources. Just ask Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, whose film “The Wolf of Wall Street” was partially funded by Jho Low, the fraudster behind Malaysia’s 1MDB multi-billion-dollar scandal. The due diligence seems to have been a little lax there.
“The Laundromat” opens with a scene featuring cavemen better suited to a Geico commercial and ends with dialogue that sounds like it was written by a film student channeling Bertolt Brecht. Even the majestic Streep can’t save it from mediocrity, which is saying something. But this isn’t a film to be watched for perfection. If it serves any purpose, it is as a call to action, though not an especially strong one.
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