Synopsis – In this The Big Short (2015)-esque dramedy based on the Mossack Fonseca scandal, a cast of characters investigate an insurance fraud, chasing leads to a pair of a flamboyant Panama City law partners exploiting the world’s financial system.
My Take – As we all know by now, that for the past few years, Netflix has been successfully pursuing prestige filmmakers to sign to create content for their original films library, in order to compete in the big race. A dream only realized last year with the massive success of Roma, especially at the 91st Academy Awards, which included a win for its director Alfonso Cuarón, further instating their strategies.
With a few more releases to follow up during the awards season (like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story), this film, director Steven Soderbergh‘s second release of the year (High Flying Bird being the first), based around the Panama Papers scandal, is the first one out of the gate.
So what exactly were the Panama Papers? In 2015, a whistle-blower under the guise of “John Doe” leaked more than 11 million documents from a Panama-based law firm named Mossack Fonseca, accusing various businesses, elite celebrities, politicians and social figures of money laundering and tax invasion, among other economic crimes. These eventually led to the 2016 “Panama Papers,” which then lead to absolutely nothing.
Some were arrested, but, three years detached, most of the world has completely forgotten, while the elite continues to screw over the meek.
The film produced as ‘The Big Short’ inspired collection of celebrity-laden vignettes explaining the ins and outs which lead to the financial disaster. The film, zips through the colorful stories as narrated by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, who play Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, the partners behind the law firm at the center of the Panama Papers scandal.
However, despite an all-star cast, director Steven Soderbergh spends far too much time preaching from the pulpit in this tired lesson on the corruption of big business, forgetting about the story he’s trying to tell in the process. Yes, it’s a lot of information for a 95 minute film with a lot of implications, and therefore it makes sense a dramatized film set around these papers would end up being confusing.
While director Steven Soderbergh and longtime collaborator Scott Z. Burns, try their hardest to take a crack at making the said a dramatized film about these white-collar crimes, like the Papers themselves, while mildly entertaining, also ends up being a muddled mess.
The unraveling of this criminal conspiracy begins once the story starts by following Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), a middle-class retiree, who on a ferry to Niagara Falls, meets with a freak accident which leads to the death of her husband, Joe (James Cromwell). And when she claims insurance for the tragedy it doesn’t get approved and leads to a paper trail, which starts from the boat company owned by Matthew Quirk (David Schwimmer), who wants his insurance to cover all the deaths that occurred, but has actually been defrauded by a shell company that’s moved their policy around in the West Indies, by company run by Malchus Irvin Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright).
The interconnection includes Charles (Nonso Anozie), an African businessman who is caught having an affair by his daughter Simone (Jessica Allain) with her roommate Astrid (Miracle Washington), and Maywood (Matthias Schoenaert), a real estate tycoon who tries to bribe a Chinese politician’s wife. And every one of their shady dealings leads to only one name, Mossack Fonesca & Co, a Panamanian law firm run by Jurgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas).
The film aims to show how loopholes in various countries’ tax codes were exploited and sleight-of-hand tricks were employed by the rich, and how they affected ordinary people. Here, Mossack and Fonseca try tho explain to us, in the simplest of terms, how they managed to find an endless assortment of loopholes in global finance by hiding off money legally and evading taxes.
Based on Jake Bernstein’s book “Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite,” director Soderbergh’s film seeks to make sense of a story that is breathtakingly complex, with enough players and layers and locations and implications to make one’s head spin.
Here, working with the screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, he takes a novel approach, creating an anthology of darkly comic vignettes to illustrate the grave premise that, in the face of global, anonymous, unregulated corruption, the little guys have zero chance at justice or accountability. However, the final product feels more like a collection of stories than an actual film.
For about 45 minutes, the film is quite great. It is compelling as we witness Ellen Martin fight to expose the crooks getting away with not paying the insurance money for which they were liable and possessed a sense of fun caper, in which director Soderbergh specializes. Then the film leaves Ellen Martin entirely and becomes about totally different people and loses all momentum.
It goes on to follow Charles, whom the film claims is an honest businessman but is stuck in an impossible situation between his wife, daughter, and her roommate. The whole sequence has some excellent moments, some very hilarious, but it takes a really long time to establish a very simple scenario involving the worth of bearer shares in companies.
Maybe this segment would be fun on its own but not as a long diversion from the main character. Then it takes another diversion to a story in China. Ellen, the supposedly vital player suddenly becomes a part-time passenger in her own story, despite the gimmicky sleight of hand in the 11th hour.
There could have been a film here, there is a fascinating story behind the Panama Papers. And there are shadows and hints and moments that infer the better film.
Sure, the framing device for the film is inventive and creative but still kind of fails for trying to explain too much, too fast. Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonesca move through the story like a Shakespearian chorus, espousing exposition and background and trying to explain the ins and outs of off-shore banking and shell companies and dummy corporations and financial malfeasance.
Almost all their scenes have a touch of the surreal and the bizarre. They are the connective tissue that almost holds the film together. The film is also unwieldy at times, and its final scene is truly baffling. But it’s worth watching not just for its bitterly entertaining explanation of a densely confusing matter but also the way it illustrates a larger problem. Most average people don’t just lack the means to avoid taxes; they don’t even know there’s a way that other people do. And yet the confusing, labyrinthine methods that the extremely wealthy can use to conceal their cash has far-reaching repercussions.
But as the fourth wall breaking continues, there are still some fun moments, like Mossack and Fonseca looking at the wrong camera. In the end, the characters break the fourth wall so drastically they blatantly preach the film’s message. I’d be on board if the film hadn’t lost me 45 minutes ago.
The most outstanding performance came from Meryl Streep who in a de-glamorized role with a silly hat and colorful clothes is immensely likable. Gary Oldman also gets to portray what could be his funniest performances ever, hamming it up with an accent. The same goes for Antonio Banderas, who seems to be having a blast. Jeffrey Wright, too with an accent has some really memorable moments.
In smaller roles, David Schwimmer, Nonso Anzonie, Melissa Rauch, Robert Patrick, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sharon Stone, James Cromwell, Rosalind Chao, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Parnell, Jane Morris, Jeff Michalski, Jessica Allain, Kunjue Li, Larry Clarke, Ming Lo, Larry Wilmore, Nikki Amuka Bird, Rosalind Chao and Will Forte, shine. On the whole, ‘The Laundromat’ is an occasionally entertaining economics lesson with a muddled storytelling technique.
Directed – Steven Soderbergh
Rated – R
Run Time – 95 minutes