Wealth is a dirty business, and Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat sets out to do a vertiginous explanation of just how deep down, how entrenched into our global consciousness it has become. Focusing and using the ones who got caught, Jurgen Mossack and Elmer Fonseca (Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas) as hosts, we get a quick succession of vignettes that tell us how the entire scheme all works. Soderbergh, a director who has always employed a sharp visual style, at first presents the men in matching outfits and moves them from what seems to be an open paradise to an underground club within seconds, both with martinis in hand, to introduce one unfortunate victim, a tiny, tiny cog on a massive wheel.
That woman is Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who finds herself not only a widow following a freak boating accident in Lake George, but now, at the setback with the insurance agency who will not provide payment due to her husband’s untimely death. That story shifts to a conversation being played out by owner of the tour boat (Robert Patrick) whose financial advisor (David Schimmwe) informs that he switched to an agency operating out of the tiny islands of St, Christopher and Nevis in order to avoid costs. The operator of that firm (Jeffrey Wright) turns out to be living a double life, and part of a larger money laundering scheme that now has Ellen out of a retirement condo as well.
More subplots get introduced: a filthy rich socialite finds her friend is having sex with her father, but the father is willing to give her assets to banks as payment for her silence. Most intriguingly, a sequence in which Rosalind Chao and Mattias Schoenaert engage in verbal warfare over — you guessed it — money, and lots of it, which ends in someone dying. It all seems to come back to the roots that were Mossack and Fonseca, who managed a gigantic money laundering operation out of Panama and is, according to the movie, one of many operating, unscathed, controlling everything from politics to who gets what in terms of wealth.
Soderbergh’s film is less a dramatic affair than a 90 minute expose of how this all happens, and the mood is definitely cynical if not outright bouncy. That alone might detract a bit from the entire issue, which is to inspire outrage, but to be honest, in a world where there is so much of this going around it is truly hard to see anything happening other than a denunciation of one agency that has now gone under. Hurting Soderbergh’s film is the cramming of so many marquee names into one tight little picture, and having Streep play three characters is a bit much. Also, having Oldman and Banderas play theirs as smiling Cheshire cats who never once admit contrition but flaunt their guilt is a bit much — then again, I did state Soderbergh is in a cynical mood and it shows. In a way, it seems to say that in this world, pretty much, we are all fucked to the mercy of those few who have so much of the green thing.