Being rich and uncredited is like having your cake and eating it too. Imagine having the power to purchase whatever you want without a spotlight scrutinizing your choices. You get paid for doing something, but no one really knows what. In business, they’re called silent partners. In film, they’re called failed actors (sorry). Because actors, maybe more than any other profession, need to be recognized for what they do. It’s the only way they can be successful. The exact opposite is true of the people in The Laundromat.
Based on the infamous Panama Papers that were leaked in 2015, which detailed the offshore accounting activities of many of the world’s richest people, director Steven Soderbergh looks at a few barely intersecting stories to help us try and make sense of the whole shell corporation game. It’s no easy feat, which is why Scott Z. Burns’ script relies heavily on actors breaking the fourth wall to explain details directly to the audience, and eventually breaking character altogether. There’s only so much hiding and make believe that can be allowed when you’re trying to tell a serious truth, which is no doubt why the filmmakers even implicate themselves in the end by admitting they use tax havens to protect their wealth. They’re taking credit where credit isn’t even (legally) due, which is strange but refreshing - much like the film itself.
Meryl Streep anchors the story as a woman looking for answers after tragedy leaves her without any legal recourse. She ends up chasing ghosts and paper trails that evade responsibility at every turn, hiding behind palm trees and Caribbean postal codes. It’s a breezy storytelling style, reminiscent of The Big Short in both form and content, that never makes light of the situation, but also makes clear how patently absurd it is that the world not only permits this type of activity, but renders it an essential tool of the super-wealthy. Any penance and penalty paid is nominal, which accounts for the cheeky performances by Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman as narrators, who seem willing to admit they’ve been naughty only because it led to a good spanking. It’s a comedic tone that serves the story well, especially when counterbalanced by characters whose lives are irreversibly changed for the worse.
The Laundromat feels at home with other how-dare-they white-collar crime movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, Greed, and even The Informant! (also by Soderbergh and Burns), as well as TV series like Succession and Billions. You’d think it would be enough to spark a movement, but instead it’s become a new genre. Finger-wagging rich fetish porn. Because it’s funny how some people get rich by following the letter of the law, isn’t it?