Saturday, October 26, 2019
The Laundromat is Steven Soderbergh’s (and Netflix’s) loose adaptation of James Bernstein’s nonfiction book, Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers, illustrating the conduct facilitated by shell companies and the lawyers who supply the paperwork. Both in style and substance, it echoes Adam McKay’s The Big Short – which is why every. single. review. draws that comparison, and so will I – but sadly, I found it neither as entertaining nor as coherent.
The Laundromat takes the form of multiple vignettes regarding people whose lives are touched by the shell entities facilitated by the lawyers at Mossack Fonseca, with Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas narrating as Mossack and Fonseca, respectively. They break the fourth wall as they offer tuxedo-clad, cynical descriptions of the services the firm provides.
Despite shoutouts to 1209 North Orange and its 285,000 companies – as well as the confession, I assume truthful, that Soderbergh has companies at that location – the film never really offers an explanation of precisely what shell companies do for their owners. That was one of the things I thought The Big Short attempted reasonably well: It took the complexity of the financial crisis and made a decent stab of explaining it in an entertaining way (my prior review here). The Laundromat tells us that these companies are stuffed with (illict) assets and that they offer privacy, but never goes further than that.
In fact, what explanations the film does offer are somewhat contradictory. We’re told that shell companies facilitate legal tax evasion, but the vignettes have nothing to do with tax evasion; they have to do with fraud, bribery, and other crimes. Moreover, multiple characters – including Mossack and Fonseca – end up in jail, so it’s clear that somebody did something illegal and the shell companies couldn’t protect them.
The truth, of course, is that shell entities have a variety of purposes, and can be used for both legal and illegal purposes, but that’s far too complex a story to portray on film, leaving The Laundromat’s explanations muddled and – from a pedagogical point of view – deeply disappointing.
At the same time, the movie doesn’t really stand on its own simply as a movie, divorced from the intricacies of the scandal that inspired it. The vignettes are half-finished, because they exist only as vehicles to illustrate the broader point about how wealthy people shield themselves from liability to the masses, which means that the failure to effectively so illustrate dooms the entire project.