Brief synopsis: A couple of Panama City lawyers, Júrgen Mossack and Rámon Fonseca, tell the story of how the very rich accumulate and protect their money, legally, from taxation and other financial penalties.
When a boating accident causes the deaths of 21 people, the widowed spouse, Ellen Martin, of one of the victims looks for answers and recompense when the insurance payout is hindered.
Is it any good?: The Laundromat breaks down the somewhat complex and murky world of high finance and tax avoidance and fashions a mostly amusing and straightforward tale of the whys and whats of the high net individuals.
It is necessarily vague in some aspects, which is a little frustrating but tells the story in a compelling enough way to leave the viewer curious, which, in essence, seems to be the goal.
Spoiler territory: Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) are the lead lawyers at a firm bearing their names in Panama City. They smugly address the watching audience, telling us that about the power of money and how credit changed the course of finances.
In Lake George, New York, Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) and her husband, Joe (James Cromwell) are getting ready to go on a river cruise. On the lake, the captain, Richard Paris (Robert Patrick), is telling those assembled on the small river-bus about the historic sites along the lake. The captain is surprised by a sudden swell on the lake. The river bus capsizes.
21 people are killed in the accident, including Ellen’s husband. When she goes to see about the insurance, she is told she just needs to fill out a claims form and should receive a seven-figure settlement.
When Captain Paris, who survived the incident, goes to see his partner, Matthew Quirk (David Schwimmer), he is told that the insurance company they got insurance through had been taken over. The company that took over say the insurance amount does not cover the river, or the accident.
In Nevis, West Indies, an accountant, Malchus Irvin Boncamper (Jeffery Wright) is ignoring an incoming call in his office. The call is from an international number. His wife, Vincelle (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who works with him in the office, brings some papers for him to sign. The papers need to faxed to Mossack and Fonseca by the end of the day.
Vincelle also tells him that Christopher Purser, the person who owns the insurance company that took over the company that insured the river-boat, had called about the accident. Irvin listens to his voice message from the international call. The call is from Quirk. Irvin is listed as the company director.
Back in Houston, Quirk tells Paris that Purser is being investigated and their insurance claim is one of many now tied up in legal wranglings. Paris hopes they can settle. Ellen takes her daughter, Melanie (Melissa Rauch) and grandchildren, Thaila (Juliet Donenfeld) and Kaylen (Brock Brenner), to a new condominium in Las Vegas.
Ellen plans to buy the condo because it overlooks an area that holds many memories for her. The realtor, Hannah (Sharon Stone), turns up at the condo. She asks Ellen if she got her voice message. Ellen did not. Hannah speaks to her alone. She cannot buy the condo, she has been outbid by some young wealthy Russians.
Mossack and Fonseca return to explain how the rich create companies in name only, based in locations with favourable taxation laws, to protect and increase their wealth. In New York, the effects of such dealings are being felt by Ellen as she is informed that the insurance company will not be paying out. Her lawyer (Larry Clarke) despairs at the bravado of the insurance company to ignore the responsibilities it inherited.
He mentions the fact that the company is based in Nevis. Ellen gets on a plane to Nevis, following the trail. Quirk speaks to special agent Kilmer (Cristela Alonzo). She tells him that all of the companies that he believes took over his insurance on the bar he owns with Paris and the river-boat, are fictional. Quirk asks how can that be, he was only trying to save some money. She tells him that it is a massive international fraud.
He asks about Boncamper, does he even exist? Kilmer assures him that he does. Boncamper is leaving Nevis to travel to the US. He tells his wife that he has to meet some clients. Ellen lands in Nevis and goes looking for the address. She finds a post office. By chance, she bumps into Boncamper. She asks about the address and Boncamper. He tells her he does not know him.
At Miami international airport, a young girl shouts for her daddy. It is Boncamper. As he comes down the steps he is intercepted by Kilmer and a group of law enforcement officers. Boncamper passes out. His American wife, Edith (Miriam A. Hyman) comes rushing to his aid. Kilmer takes her to one side and shows her that she is actually his second wife and family.
Kilmer takes Boncamper away. In Panama City, Mossack is informed by his secretary (Veronica Osorio) that Boncamper has been arrested. Mossack asks who he is. She tells him that he is the listed director of forty-six of their companies. Mossack thinks about falsifying records to have someone else as the director.
Ellen keeps on investigating and finds out that the company is part of a trust. The trust is under the signed directorship of Mia Beltran (Brenda Zamora). In Panama, Brenda is given multiple documents by Mossack to sign. One of the company’s she is a director for has purchased property in Las Vegas.
Ellen goes to a local news outlet, hoping to shed some light on the shady dealings she has come across. The editor tells her they prefer to focus on stories that are closer to home. Back in Panama, Brenda is killed in an unfortunate, freak accident. She was the signed director of some two thousand, five hundred companies.
They decide to promote another woman in the office, Elena (Meryl Streep). She becomes the new director of all of the companies. Mossack and Fonseca tell us how they met after studying law and formed a company. Elena comes to Mossack telling him that the Costa Rican government want to seize a house of one of their clients. The client is a drug lord.
Mossack and Fonseca tell us that most of their clients are good people just trying to help their families and futures. They talk about Charles (Nonso Anozie), who just wants to provide for his daughter, Simone (Jessica Allain). Charles gets home and goes to his mansion. In the pool is Astrid (Miracle Washington), Simone’s best friend.
Charles is having an affair with Astrid. Simone returns from university early, wanting to settle in before her graduation celebration. She catches her father and best friend together. Charles tells her that he will give her one of his companies, worth twenty million dollars, as long as she does not tell her mother.
Her mother, Miranda (Nikki Amuka-Bird), returns from he travels for the graduation celebrations. She calls Astrid, insisting on her coming to the celebration. Simone attacks her when she turns up at the party and Astrid apologises to Miranda, mistakenly thinking she knows about the affair.
When Simone goes to find out the value of companies her father signed over to her, she finds that they are practically worthless, the twenty million dollar valuation now down to thirty-seven dollars in the time that it took her parents to separate.
In China, Mr Maywood (Matthias Schoenaerts), is going to see Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao). He helped finance her husband’s, Bo Xilai, political campaign. He wants to invest again as the deal was very beneficial to him. Gu does not want to get involved with the dubious dealings again. Maywood threatens to derail her husband’s campaign by exposing their dealings if she does not agree to another venture.
Gu, feeling threatened, kills him with rat poison. Gu goes to the chief-of-police, Wang Lijun (Ming Lo), telling him that she had to kill Maywood because he had kidnapped her son and threatened to expose her. Lijun records the conversation. He takes a team and arrests both Gu and her husband at his political rally.
Mossack and Fonseca are telling us once again about tax avoidance as opposed to the illegal practice of tax evasion. Ellen is at church praying for a solution, a resolution. She comes up with a plan.
Mossack and Fonseca get exposed in the press, the whole tax avoidance scheme becoming public knowledge. Their data was given to the press by an anonymous source known only as John Doe.
They both get arrested. They go to jail for a mere three months. John Doe says that the system is mired in legalese and protects those who do not really need protecting whilst hurting those who do. He asks that the financial systems be reformed. The end.
The Laundromat is an interesting film that, if you took any passable interest in the news a few years back, will sound vaguely familiar. Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a book by Jake Bernstein and a script by Scott Z. Burns, it takes a, truth be told, boring subject and makes it entertaining.
High finance and the ways in which high net worth individuals protect their money is a difficult subject to make entertaining. In truth, it lends itself more to documentary making rather than popcorn entertainment.
A vast amount of people find numbers boring and a little daunting. Coupled with legal practices, numbers and impenetrable legal jargon is the perfect way to hide vast amounts of money.
The issue that anyone tackling this subject has is making anyone care. Because many of the people who benefit from such schemes are faceless, it difficult to care beyond mild indignation about what they are doing.
Here in the UK, the press have, without much success, tried to whip up some negative press towards Amazon and their taxation practices. Unfortunately, for most of us, the numbers are so unfathomable and the impact only felt as some intangible unfairness, that one struggles to be angry about it.
That is the same problem The Laundromat suffers from. We know this sort of thing is going on, but we have no power to affect it. Soderbergh, a well-regarded director, recruits many big names for this project, so everyone on show puts in a great performance.
Still, even with the big names in attendance all putting in great performances, the somewhat piecemeal nature of the storytelling makes it difficult to really emote with what is happening.
That being said, anyone who is interested in high finance or just in money movement, might well enjoy this film. The end, a statement taken from the John Doe documents, are meant as something of a call to arms but, as I mentioned earlier, most are too apathetic to care.
At ninety-five minutes long, The Laundromat is possibly worth a watch for the curiosity value alone.