PRINT October 2019



Steven Soderbergh, The Laundromat, 2019, 4K video, color, sound, 96 minutes. Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep).

THE WORLD looks pale and wan—as if about to expire—in Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, an unsparing political, economic, and social satire in which almost every major character gasps for breath at one point or another. Scott Z. Burns’s screenplay is adapted from journalist Jake Bernstein’s 384-page Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite (2017), an extensive analysis of the hidden practices of money laundering, bribery, and tax evasion first exposed in 2015 when 11.5 million documents belonging to the forty-year-old Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca were leaked to a German reporter, Bastian Obermayer, in the largest data breach in history. Both compressing and embroidering on its source, The Laundromat clocks in at ninety-six minutes, covering the essentials and providing a fictional everywoman with whom it’s easy to identify. The brio of the directing, writing, editing, and acting is a joy in itself, and while the film gets in a few good jokes, the real-world context is so nasty that laughter—except at the best gag of all, which I leave you to discover for yourself—sticks in your throat. The Laundromat could be regarded as a sequel to Soderbergh’s The Informant! (2009), also written by Burns, which dramatized the Archer Daniels Midland price-fixing scandal and the personal corruption of one outlandish executive (played by Matt Damon) who stole close to a million dollars while wearing a wire for the feds. Back then, thanks to the director’s and the writer’s acute sense of comedy, we could at once laugh at and be outraged by corporate criminality and personal amorality. But ten years on, when the greed of the ultrarich has sucked the world dry, satire proves an unsettling genre in which to present grievous truths.

Formally, The Laundromat is part Brechtian learning play, part Brothers Grimm fairy tale, replete with ravenous, ogreish men and the status-hungry women who fight over their scraps. The narrative runs along two intersecting tracks: The first traces the rise and fall of Mossack Fonseca, which once serviced more than two hundred thousand shell companies, foundations, and other instruments used to hide, move, and wash money. Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) take the audience into their confidence, aiming their trickery directly at the camera. “These stories are not just about us,” they say, trading sentences like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. “They also are about you . . . because all these stories are about money.” You might feel slimed listening to them, but they have a point: We’re all cathected onto money.

But ten years on, when the greed of the ultrarich has sucked the world dry, satire proves an unsettling genre in which to present grievous truths.

If Soderbergh and Burns base the Mossack Fonseca narrative on actual facts and figures, the second story, revolving around the fictional Ellen Martin—a victim twice over of the firm’s shell companies—is a remarkably human, emotionally layered invention of the writer, the director, and the actor who plays the character, Meryl Streep. Ellen loses her beloved husband of forty years in a sightseeing-boat accident and, believing there will be a settlement, puts a down payment on a Las Vegas condo so she can look out the window at the corner where she and he first met. But the apartment is sold out from under her to some Russians who pay cash for it along with two adjacent units, and she discovers that the boat owner’s insurance has been moved between shell companies so often that there’s barely paper trail enough to follow it. At once bewildered and determined—she looks a bit like a Smithfield Sheepdog that has lost its way—Ellen flies to the West Indies in search of answers but is frustrated at every turn. As Mossack and Fonseca explain, Ellen is one of the meek, who shall never inherit the earth, because she isn’t rich enough to influence the politicians who would bend the laws in her favor. Although the film focuses on offshore shenanigans, it points to the United States’s tax laws as the original and ongoing mechanisms by which the wealthy get to keep more of their money than the rest of us. We learn that in Delaware alone there are 285,000 entities that have been created for tax avoidance, and that legal loopholes make it difficult to determine the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion. We also learn that not even the filmmakers are beyond reproach: “The director of this film has five,” says Mossack, twitching his eyebrows. “Even the writer has one,” adds Fonseca.

Ellen is screwed—or rather, she would be, if this weren’t a fairy tale. When she asks God to intervene—and prays that if He can’t give her justice, He at least grant her a little revenge—he seems to listen, because he sends, let’s call her, a sister beneath the drag, who’s better placed and more resourceful than Ellen. And poof! With one enormous computer hack, Wall Street trembles and Mossack Fonseca is no more. Who’s left standing at the end is Streep, who strips off the fiction to tell us, “Reform of America’s broken campaign-finance system cannot wait.” It’s a weirdly bald takeaway. No one other than Streep could pull it off. What a woman! What a movie! 

The Laundromat opened for a two-week run in theaters September 27 and begins streaming on Netflix October 18. 

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.