Remember the Panama Papers? In the news? About a boatload of leaked documents in 2015 that was going to tear down the curtains covering the sneaky offshore shell company activity of billionaires, and expose them like roaches scurrying in a tenement slum? No? That’s probably because you’re not a billionaire. Me neither.
Want to see a movie about that? Yes? No? After all, “The Big Short,” among others, proved that learning about the abundant trickery of the finance world could be fun; good cheating stories are highly entertaining, especially when there’s a good comeuppance. (Which is why HBO’s upcoming NXIVM documentary series about the scoundrel Keith Raniere will most likely be a big hit.)
Director Steven Soderbergh made a movie about the book “Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite.” It’s a meandering, slight, yawn-inducing, low-budgety-looking endeavor. Not really fun. A little bit funny. Largely boring. With a rather criminal underusage of a stellar cast. Sharon Stone in a two-minute role as a realtor, really?
I mean—look at this cast: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, James Cromwell, Robert Patrick, and David Schwimmer. That’s probably a collection of around 10 Oscars. They don’t need money or accolades; clearly they were here for the concept and hoped to help Soderbergh turn up the wattage exposing a modern-day evil.
It’s basically a bunch of wee stories about the little people who suffered from the criminal activity at the heart of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. What are shell companies? They’re virtual, international businesses, sans offices and employees, which, while not illegal, facilitate the ability to do illegal things, like hiding money and ducking taxes.
Satirically, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas play Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, respectively: a pair of charming, fourth-wall-breaking, cravat-wearing, teetotaling, happy-go-lucky narrators and tour guides of the Panama City law firm that bears their names. They stroll with us and provide commentary throughout a series of mini-episodes following people adversely affected by their greed.
There’s the retiree and widow Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who loses hubby (James Cromwell) to a freak tidal wave while he’s boating on New York’s Lake George. Thanks to Mossack and Fonseca, she’s not going to get a full insurance settlement.
This turns Ellen into a geriatric Erin Brockovich (“Erin Brockovich” was also directed by Soderbergh), who reveals the teeming roach colony of misdeeds hiding under the Mossack Fonseca shell company United Re-Insurance Group.
So that’s one story.
Two Vignettes, One Twisted, One Horrifying
There are many such vignettes, the most entertaining of which is a twisted comedic bit about an African businessman (Nonso Anozie) who, caught flagrante delicto by his 18-year-old daughter (Jessica Allain), with her bestie college roommate, tries to bribe his daughter not to tell her mother (Nikki Amuka-Bird). He gives her one of his 20-million-dollar shell companies as a birthday present. She and her mom are placated. Until they try to cash out.
The most weirdly affecting of these true stories, however, is one about the British businessman Neil Heywood (here called Maywood, played by Matthias Schoenaerts), who was poisoned to death by Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao), the wife of Bo Xilai, a powerful Chinese politician, when Heywood threatened to blow the whistle on the power couple’s offshore holdings.
It’s not Heywood’s story, per se, that affects us, but much more the depiction of Bo Xilai’s involvement in a different horrendous crime: the live organ-harvesting from Chinese prisoners of conscience—specifically adherents of the peaceful qigong practice Falun Gong.
The excessively gruesome portrayal of the scalpel-removal of corneas from live prisoners will scorch your retinas.
The scene doesn’t belong anywhere near the rest of the blithe, comedic treatment of all these fiscal crimes. That said, none of the heartbreak in these stories benefit from being told in this fluffy manner. To be worthwhile, the film needed to engender some outrage.
Meryl Streep ultimately divests herself of all her costumes and disguises, brushes out her hair, and delivers a pretty good speech about how the puppet strings controlling global finances are held by the rich, and that as we speak, many other shady firms just like Mossack Fonseca are up to no good.
In addition to a serious treatment, “The Laundromat” probably could have benefited from a few crooked billionaire scenes, like, say, Jeffrey Epstein’s weird island temple, which may or may not have been intended for human sacrifice. Shady money confers power, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s not really funny.
In the end, though, it’s a laudable cause. The world should be aware of all this sneakiness. Next up, it’d be nice to see Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, et al, and Steven Soderbergh do a film exposing the sneakiness of China’s entire live organ-harvesting operation. No pun intended.
In addition to practitioners of Falun Gong, let’s also hear about the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and underground Christians suffering in China’s black jails and hidden labor camps. They’re having medical tests run on them for blood type, and for the health of their corneas, kidneys, livers, hearts, etc. Why? So billionaires with offshore shell companies—should they drink too much and get cirrhosis of the liver—can order up nice, fresh livers and get theirs replaced next week, from China.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, James Cromwell, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer, Rosalind Chao, Matthias Schoenaerts, Nonso Anozie
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 27
Rated: 2 stars out of 5