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The Laundromat / Die Geldwäscherei

Now here’s a funny thing. Stephen Soderbergh’s take on the Panama Papers which seems to be showing in Berlin cinemas for 2 days only. I see that Netflix is involved, so maybe its being fast tracked for an online release.

We start with Ellen (Meryl Streep) going on holiday with her husband, The small boat that they are on capsizes, killing 21 people including Ellen’s husband. The compensation for each life should be millions of dollars, but who is to pay? The boat owners had taken up insurance, but, strapped for cash, they took the cheapest available. The insurers had sold their duty to pay to a holding company, in Nevis, which abdicates any responsibility.

After Ellen is gazumped by Russian property speculators she sets off to to Nevis to find that the holding company is a so-called “shell” that is little more than a P.O. Box. Meanwhile, the company owner – who until now has only shown interest in playing solitaire on his computer – is rushing to the airport where the police are about to stop him and arrest him for bigamy.

These snippets are introduced by a pair of men in expensive suits played by Gary Oldman (in a thick and slightly ridiculous Cherman accent) and Antonia Banderas (as a generic Central American). They are lawyers, whose firm is making the big profits on all this chicanery. As the film goes on, they will talk us through the neo-liberal financial system while protesting unconvincingly that none of it is their fault.

It is here that the film makes a series of wild turns, as we meet a rich man in Florida who uses share options to buy his daughter’s silence about the affair he’s having with her room mate (ironically, the options are now worthless to anyone but Gary and Antonio). We overhear a bar conversation in Mexico about Neil Diamond’s contribution to “Red, Red Wine”, before moving to China for a tale of betrayal, organ harvesting and murder.

Each story is interesting enough, and has a vague connection to the Panama Papers scandal, but they don’t really cohere as a whole, and the film ends up like a book of short stories which has been compiled by committee. There is also an unfortunate instance of black face which really shouldn’t be done in 2019, and is part of an unconvincing final “plot twist” that doesn’t work and should never have been there in the first place.

Nonetheless there is a righteous anger in the film that keeps it going. We learn that tax havens and shell companies do not just exist on exotic islands but in US States like Delaware (somewhat mischievously, we are told that the director of the film owns five shell companies. Pause for dramatic effect. And the writer owns one). Then at the end, Meryl Streep breaks out of character, adopts the stance of the Statue of Liberty and addresses the camera as Meryl saying this has all got to stop.

The whole thing is heartfelt and the cast-list is stellar, with supporting roles for Sharon Stone, David Schwimmer, Jeffrey Wright and pretty much anyone else in Soderbergh’s addrss book. And it manages to bring a fairly dry story to a mainstream audience, using many of the methods used in The Big Short. Yet, like the Big Short, it tries to do much, and the structural incoherence means that much of the message gets lost.

Still, its better to aim high and not quite pull everything off than to dole out a bland dollop of meaningless gruel, so its still worth a visit if the cinemas do deign to show it any more.

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