‘THE Laundromat’ is a Netflix movie that reeks with so much social relevance as it’s an expose on the rotten financial systems uncovered in what is known as the Panama Papers scandal. These papers are documents leaked in April 2016 by an unnamed whistleblower where shell corporations were used for illegal purposes like fraud, tax evasion and money laundering, evading international sanctions and duping ordinary people who lose hard earned money in the scam.
The film opens with Jurgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) who own the Panamanian law firm carrying their surnames. They break the fourth wall in introducing to the viewer the concept and procedure of money laundering. They act as narrators for three different people who were all swindled by the nefarious company they run, Mossack-Fonseca.
The first one is Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), a grandmother who’s vacationing in Lake George, New York with her husband Joe (James Cromwell), when a boating accident happens and Joe dies. When Ellen tries to get compensation for her husband’s demise, she discovers that the insurance company has sold their policy to another company based in Nevis, an island in the Carribean.
The Nevis-based company turns out to be a mere shell company of Mossack being investigated by the IRS (Internal Revenue Service). Ellen goes to Nevis to confront its manager who then escapes but is apprehended in Miami by IRS agents.
Then there’s Simone (Jessica Allain), who is appalled when she discovers her dad Charles (Nonso Anozie), is banging her own best friend. To silence her, Charles bribes her with $20 million worth of shares in his investment companies. But when she tries to claim the shares in Panama, they turn out to be part of another Mossack imaginary shell company that exists only on paper.
The third story concerns the Wang Lijun incident, a Chinese political scandal where the vice mayor of Chongqing named Wang Lijun was deposed after telling the truth about how British businessman Neil Heywood (Matthias Schoenaerts) was murdered, which led to the downfall of Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai.
Heywood is renamed Maywood in the movie, a middleman for wealthy Chinese people who funnel money abroad. He meets with Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao), the wife of Bo Xilai, and demands for a big increase in his pay if they want him to go on money laundering for them through a Mossack shell company. Gu then poisons him and he dies in the hotel, with Gu later arrested for murder and corruption.
The film’s climax shows the Panama Papers being linked, with Mossack and Fonseca being arrested, but they stayed in prison only for three months. The final sequence offers a surprise with Meryl Streep playing another character and reminding us directly that there are still many fraudulent shell companies for tax havens that continue to exist in this day and age. She calls for reforms in the financial systems of the U.S.A. We didn’t even know Delaware is considered as a tax haven.
“The Laundromat” is based on the book “Secrecy World” by Jake Bernstein and directed by Steven Soderbergh, who has made similarly socially-relevant films before like “Traffic” (about the drug trade that won him Oscar best director in 2000), “Erin Brockovich” (about oppressed workers that won an Oscar best actress plum for Julia Roberts), “Contagion” (about the spread of a deadly virus), etc. “The Laundromat” is what you may call infotainment, furnishing us with valuable information about scams performed on unsuspecting victims by unscrupulous financial experts, but in an entertaining manner.
Soderbergh tries his best to present the complex issues in simpler terms that lay people can understand, with Oldman and Banderas guiding us personally. The opening scene shows them in one long take explaining how money evolved when they gave some to a caveman, saying that “credit is the future tense in the language of money.” The movie shows that corporate malfeasance can really protect their own wealth and the meek should never expect to inherit the earth. As the film itself says: “The meek are screwed.”
This is Meryl’s first film with Soderbergh and she does convincingly as a widow screwed by an insurance company but determined to get her just desserts. She’s actually the heart of the movie and in the end, when she admonishes the viewers about the dangers of greedy sham companies, you know very well you should listen. Oldman and Banderas give excellent support acting like reality show hosts with sequinned suits, and so do the other characters playing minor roles, but there’s no doubt Meryl is the real star of the show.