Netflix's Panama Papers Docudrama 'The Laundromat' Laughs in the Face of Corruption
Whether he's shooting movies, directing whole seasons of a TV show, or selling bottles of Bolivian liquor, Steven Soderbergh loves a problem. The bigger, the better. His more issue-oriented movies -- like the Oscar-winning drug crisis epic Traffic, the whistleblower dramas Erin Brockovich and The Informant!, and this year's organized sports parable High Flying Bird -- don't necessarily offer solutions or attempt to address the root of a topic head on. Instead, they approach a societal ill or a political quandary from a variety of angles, often using genre to wiggle into the complexities of the subject and an abundance of style to slice the information into digestible morsels. He makes the difficult go down easy.
Soderbergh's latest Netflix release, the proudly cheeky Panama Papers explainer The Laundromat, is a chance for him to work in a range of tricky storytelling modes. The presence of Meryl Streep, one of the most celebrated actresses of all time, in a starring role as Ellen Martin, a woman who untangles a web of financial corruption following the tragic death of her husband (James Cromwell), would perhaps make you assume this is a more straightforward narrative than it actually is. Instead, Scott Z. Burns's script, which was adapted from the nonfiction book Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite by Jake Bernstein, opens with jaunty, direct-to-the-camera narration from Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, playing real-life lawyers Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, who are currently suing Netflix in a last-ditch effort to stop the release of the movie (spoiler: the movie is on Netflix now), and they rarely cede the floor for very long. Streep is merely part of a larger scheme.
Still, she remains a star, captivating as she argues with a real estate agent in an empty Las Vegas condo or sprays an office with buckshot in a loopy fantasy sequence. But The Laundromat is a crowded constellation, one where actors like Sharon Stone, David Schwimmer, Jeffery Wright, Larry Wilmore, Will Forte, and Chris Parnell soar across the screen like wayward asteroids from other movies before departing forever. Though Streep shines, Soderbergh's telescope-like camera is always moving, pulling back to create a sense of scale and then zooming in on new details to create a sense of immediacy. "Confused yet?" asks Banderas at one point early on, signaling that the excess of the browser-crashing, too-many-tabs aesthetic might be the point.
Soderbergh and Burns provide some structure to the scandal, which broke via a giant document leak, by breaking it down into chapter-like "Secrets" that appear as text on screen. The first animated title card is appropriately blunt: "The meek are screwed." It's here that we're introduced to Streep's Martin, the first of many individuals in the film who are trapped in a system that thrives on brutal indifference to human suffering. After her husband drowns in a boating accident, she's unable to receive the pay-out from the company responsible because its insurance policy is tied up with a number of shady shell companies. Determined, she keeps digging.
Eventually, her search leads her to Malchus Irvin Boncamper (Wright), an accountant based in the Caribbean island of Nevis. Soon, Mossack and Fonseca, previously only serving as dapper narrators, officially enter the action. If that doesn't sound like a lot already, there's also a discursive plot involving a rich Los Angeles man, played with dry wit by former Game of Thrones merchant Nonso Anozie, who attempts to teach his daughter a cynical lesson about money and power after she discovers one of his more personal secrets. Frequently, Burns and Soderbergh tease out the connections between different forms of deception: If you're willing to make a shell company, then you're probably willing to make a shell family or a shell relationship, right? At a certain point, you become a shell person yourself.
The director and writer are so willing to chase these ideas that they even implicate themselves at one point in a section where Banderas and Oldman break down the distinction between tax evasion and tax avoidance. ("It just seemed like the natural thing to do and the fair thing to do," Soderbergh told Filmmaker Magazine in a typically candid interview.) Unfortunately, that desire to playfully pull the rug out from under the audience grows tiring as the film progresses; you want to put your foot down and find solid ground. By the time Soderbergh stages a China-set segment about organ-harvesting featuring Rosalind Chao and Matthias Schoenaerts, the film feels adrift, lost in its own spinning logic.
Similarly, the movie makes one last grand, fourth-wall-breaking gesture towards the end, which I won't discuss in detail here other than to note that it felt baffling. (Adam McKay's Dick Cheney biopic Vice, an equally muddled and admirable film, climaxed with a similarly fiery direct address.) At the start of the film, the two rich lawyer narrators tell the audience that they are "real people -- just like you." Clearly, there are multiple levels of irony at work in the statement: The tax-evading attorneys are real, yes, but they are most likely not "like you." Neither are the wealthy celebrities mugging their way across the screen. There's a type of whirling cinematic glibness that can be exhilarating, particularly when executed at such a high level by skilled professionals, but it can also leave a stain of smugness. In The Laundromat, no one gets away clean.