Do you remember when Steven Soderbergh retired from filmmaking? That was approximately five films and two television series ago. There’s a looseness to his new Netflix-bound Panama Papers takedown The Laundromat that, for both better or worse, smacks of an OAP not giving a tinker’s cuss.
Meryl Streep stars as Ellen Martin, herself a retiree, who is on a holiday with her husband near Niagara Falls when a freak accident capsizes the boat they’re on and her husband is drowned. Unfortunately, due to some financial restructuring – better known as plain fraud – the insurance company is refusing to divvy up. Then an apartment she wants to buy is snarfed up by a Russian trust and before you can say “Erin Brockovich” the enraged Ellen is off to the island where the offshore trusts live.
Ellen’s story is just one of many, and rather than a David versus Goliath pean to social activism, Soderbergh weaves a web of intersecting stories from China to Africa, Panama to Seychelles, while two charming spiders Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) spin plenty of their own. Oldman is particularly good here, channelling Werner Herzog as the pair wander through the film explaining how money works (bananas are used as a primary example), before getting into the confounding intricacies of their own activities of tax avoidance and tax evasion.
Further stars turn up in relatively small roles, among them Jeffrey Wright as an offshore director with two families, Sharon Stone as an L.A. realtor and Matthias Schoenaerts as a shady UK businessman laundering bribes in China. Based on Jake Bernstein’s book Secrecy World, screenwriters Scott Z. Burns and Soderbergh keep everything self-aware and preemptively j’accuse themselves when referring to some shell companies: “The director of this movie has five or them…” Mossack and Fonesca declare, like an unscrupulous comedy double act, …” and the writer has one.”
Whether The Laundromat will revive interest in a scandal that saw prime ministers resign and the rich and famous running for cover is up for debate. The guilty got light jail sentences – if they were jailed at all – and the biggest tax haven in the world is actually the USA, whose financial regulations are becoming if anything weaker. Hopefully, Soderbergh’s film will raise more awareness as well as a chuckle. However it should be noted that Netflix, who produced the film, paid zero federal income tax on $856 million of U.S. income. As Donald Trump might say, “That’s not wrong, that’s smart.”
The 76th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August-7 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty