Only one movie for you this week, as I didn’t manage to watch a second one last night after all. But it’s an all-star affair directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Scott Z Burns and featuring Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer, Rosalind Chao and Sharon Stone.
It’s The Laundromat (2019), it’s all about tax avoidance and the Panama Papers, and it’s going to be reviewed after the adverts and the trailer.
The Laundromat (2019)
A widow investigates an insurance fraud. Chasing leads to a pair of Panama City law partners exploiting the world’s financial system.
Making legal tax avoidance fun
There is a certain difficulty in making highly complicated matters interesting – particularly legal-financial matters such as offshore domicility, shell companies and bearer shares.
Adam McKay’s The Big Short (2015) ran into similar difficulties and opted to have Margot Robbie sit in a bubble bath to explain the sub-prime mortgage market in simple terms.
I suspect many people came away with less knowledge of the sub-prime mortgage market than the thought “Margot Robbie in a bubble bath” than McKay had intended.
However, McKay’s no Steven Soderbergh or Scott Z Burns, who have far greater success and tools at their disposal to explain how it was that big companies and wealthy individuals were able to exploit loopholes in global taxation law to secrete their wealth away from relevant national bodies.
In the first half of the movie, The Laundromat uses two main mechanisms to explain the events that led up to the release of the Panama Papers. The first is Meryl Streep playing a lowly widow whose husband (James Cromwell) is killed in a boat accident.
However, the boat firm’s owners (Robert Patrick and David Schwimmer) are themselves victims – but of insurance fraud. They soon learn that their insurance is almost worthless and is held by an unreachable, possibly fictitious company on the island of Nevis.
Streep is soon hunting down the company, bumping into the likes of realtor Sharon Stone and accountant Jeffrey Wright along the way, all of whom bring her into contact with the fabulous multinational world of shell companies.
At the same time, we have constant narration, often to-camera, sometimes in the same scene as other events, by Antonia Banderas and Gary Oldman (sporting an outrageous German accent) playing the real-life lawyers Ramón Fonseca and Jürgen Mossack at the centre of the Panama Papers dispute. They explain their own histories and how shell companies work, as well as justify tax avoidance. And sometimes they actually become involved in the plot, too.
However, halfway through the movie, it starts to take in other, odder directions. We have an African family with millions of dollars and living in Los Angeles, who negotiate with each other to maintain silence about an infidelity. There’s Rosalind Chao over in China murdering her own money launderer.
And to be honest, I’m not 100% sure what they’re doing there. They don’t result in anything, they don’t advance the narrative, they don’t provide any more insight. They’re just there.
Similarly, Streep’s journey doesn’t really take her anyway in the second half. She’s miffed but that’s it. Then the leak of the Panama Papers happens… and that’s about it.
After that, we hit peak Soderbergh and Streep is removing a disguise (did you spot which other character she was playing?), out of character, wandering past sets and green screens, exhorting the audience to follow the advice of the insider who leaked the Panama Papers and reform American campaign laws.
Back in the bath
All of which leaves us back in that bubble bath with Margot Robbie. We’ve definitely seen something we’ve enjoyed and been entertained. We probably understand shell companies and that they’re perfectly legal – assuming we didn’t already understand them, since TBH, they’re not the most complicated or secret of concepts. We maybe have to petition some politician to do something?
But that’s about it. The individual plots all end unresolved or without impact. The actual things we can do (apart from reconcile ourselves to “slave” status, as Streep describes us) aren’t very clear or spelt out. The most the film is prepared to do with people involved in the Panama Papers affair is use old news footage that names the likes of… David Cameron’s dad. It’s not exactly sticking it to the man, is it?
All of which simply leaves us having watching an entertaining movie with an all-star cast and a plethora of directorial tricks that left us feeling a bit sad about ‘the little man’ and our mutual plight in the face of worldwide corruption. What larks.
Worth a watch, just so you can be dazzled, but not if you actually want to do something about worldwide corruption.