Netflix’s The Laundromat tries hard to make financial transactions have a plot with clear villains and heroes but it falls short because its overly simplistic moral framework (finance = bad) cannot sustain a feature length film. The film isn’t a very good explanation of how fraud is committed; it is a terrible explanation of the role of international financial centres; and, its greatest sin, it is boring.
The primary villains are Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, the partners in Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonesca, whose papers were leaked in what became known as the Panama Papers. Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas portray the two lawyers in performances that seem phoned in – both come across as whiny, amoral enablers of corruption and make unsatisfying villains because they are cardboard cutouts rather than human beings. By contrast, the terrific HBO drama The Wire made virtually all its characters (drug dealers, cops, politicians, etc.) morally complex and connected them with its audience.
Equally boring are the film’s three victims of finance. Meryl Streep’s Ellen Martin is seeking compensation from the owners of a New York pleasure boat on which she and her husband were sailing when it capsized, leading to her husband’s drowning. Its Texas insurer had reinsured with a Nevisian reinsurer, which turned out to be a fraud. Martin goes on a quest to hold someone “accountable” – but her quest ignores the boat owners, who actually seem responsible and who mostly complain to each other that they just were trying to save money. No-one on board the boat is wearing a life jacket; the boat is capsized by a wave that appears out of nowhere; and the boat owners seem to have done no due diligence on their insurer. Ellen also ignores the New York, Texas, and Nevisian regulators, who all seem to have missed both the insurance company’s and the reinsurer’s lack of reserves. And Ellen is outraged when Russians (presumably corrupt ones) outbid her for a condo she wants in New York, overlooking the spot where she met her late husband. She can’t plead her case to them because (drum roll), they are operating through a shell company!
The second victim is Simone, the daughter of an African billionaire. When she walks in on her father and her college roommate having an affair just hours before her college graduation party, she understandably throws a fit. Her father – in one of the only actually interesting moments in the film – calls her a spoiled brat and then gives her a lecture on the need to make compromises in life. It appears to work, because when he offers her money to keep quiet about the affair, Simone takes the money, which is in by a Nevisian bearer share company. So much for the moral high ground!
During what was probably intended as a comic incident, the truth about the affair comes out when the roommate shows up at Simone’s graduation party. When Simone (and her mother, who had also gotten paid off through bearer shares in another Nevisian company) go to Nevis to collect their money – raising the question of whether any of these people are familiar with telephones and wire transfers – they find that the companies have been stripped of all their assets. (Not mentioned is that the payment was for not revealing the affair, and so Simone did not live up to her end of the bargain.) Simone is hardly a morally worthy victim of an offshore shell game – she had sold her mother out for US$20 million, after all – and that she might actually have to get a job and actually earn a living doesn’t seem like that terrible an outcome, although one can see why it would seem frightening to Hollywood screenwriters and actors. The film also hints that the US$20 million was probably the result of corruption, which would have made her complicit in receiving illegitimate funds had she gotten her hands on the money.
Finally, the film gives a thinly fictionalised version of the death of Neil Haywood (renamed “Maywood” in the film), a British businessman murdered in China by a politician’s wife when he tried to demand more money to help them launder funds. Once again, the victim is unsympathetic – he’s a money launderer and enabler of corruption in China, who was enabling a particularly unsavoury Chinese official (in real life Bo Xilai, whose rise was built on glorifying Mao and the Cultural Revolution). That he falls afoul of his partners in crime is something hard to get too worked up about.
It is hard to care about these cardboard victims because we know next to nothing about them other than they are victims. Only Ellen doesn’t seem to be personally involved in corruption herself and it’s hard to connect emotionally with someone whose response to the loss of her husband is to sit in a church and ask God when the meek are going to finally get theirs and fantasise about shooting up the reinsurance company that has failed to pay up.
The film’s conclusion (spoiler alert, but it is really no surprise) is that Nevis, Panama, and Delaware (and presumably other similar places) are sinkholes of corruption and fraud. Streep ends the film by walking out of the Mossack Fonseca office and removing the costume that enabled her to play the role of one of the firm’s employees while reciting part of the (still unknown) Panama Papers leaker’s “manifesto”, morphing into Ellen. She then takes off a wig and transforms herself into Meryl Streep, to deliver a final lecture on the immorality of tax avoidance, shell companies, etc. Along the way, she admits the film director and producer themselves have Delaware companies, which they don’t appear to be giving up.
Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds makes a regular call to “repeal the Hollywood tax cuts.” : https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/sunday-reflection-repeal-the-hollywood-tax-cuts. As Reynolds notes, our moral betters in Hollywood regularly lecture the rest of us about the evils of tax avoidance while engaged in some of the most egregious tax and accounting gimmicks to avoid taxes. I’m not holding my breath waiting for Hollywood’s elite to practise what they preach or get back to making movies that actually entertain, but that would be a happy ending.
Andrew P. Morriss Andrew Morriss is the Dean of Texas A&M University School of Innovation. Prior to this position, he was the Dean of the Texas A&M School of Law, the D. Paul Jones & Charlene A. Jones Chairholder in Law at the University of Alabama, the Ross & Helen Workman Professor of Law at the University of Illinois, and the Galen J. Roush Chair in Law at Case Western Reserve University.