Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Laundromat.
The last few minutes of Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat are a mindfuck, to say the least. The fourth wall is shattered, Meryl Streep is revealed to have been cosplaying as a Panamanian secretary, and to top it all off, she sheds not one, but two wigs, in order to give a rousing speech about tax reform while posing as Lady Liberty. It’s a lot. So, how did we get here?
As early as the opening credits, The Laundromat is introduced as being “based on actual secrets.” The events in question are 2015 revelations about the Panama Papers, an international scandal tying hundreds of high-profile individuals — politicians, royals, media personalities, celebrities, CEOs, and more — to off-shore shell companies in a massive tax scheme led by Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. In total, 11.5 million files were released by an anonymous source, known only as John Doe, providing information on more than 214,000 offshore companies.
In the movie, this translates into a series of vignettes, narrated, Big Short-style, by dapper gents Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman, who use the events on-screen as a way to explain the intricacies of tax avoidance and shell corporations. Over the course of the film however, we learn that our guides are actually the ones propping up a vile system of tax fraud— they play partners Jürgen Mossack (Oldman, hamming it up with a German accent) and Ramón Fonseca (Banderas), founders of the Panama City law film behind the notorious offshore tax scheme..
Then, in another vignette, we are sent to follow the plight of Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), whose 40th anniversary wedding trip suddenly turns tragic when her husband and 20 other people drown during a pleasure cruise accident. Without warning, she’s launched headfirst into the shady world of insurance claims and settlements, as a company that should be compensating her turns out to be owned by another, and yet another, like a terrible nightmare of empty Russian dolls, each guarding the next from taking responsibility.
To add insult to injury, Ellen loses out on her dream Las Vegas condo when it’s snapped up by yet another shell corporation, as part of a tax avoidance scheme. Convinced that this all must be somehow illegal (it’s not — or is it?), Ellen starts to dig deep. Her investigation leads her from the Carribbean island of Nevis to the South American nation of Panama, as she begins to realize that her own predicament is but a minor example of a much far-reaching problem that links back to some of the most rich and powerful world leaders.
So, where does the Panamanian secretary come in?
Well, when we first meet her, she’s a stranger fielding a call from Ellen, who has traced the source of her predicament to Mossack Fonseca, a law firm operating out of Panama City. Their purpose, as explained by our narrators — who also run the firm; are you still with me? — is to create shell companies for rich clients seeking to hide their money from the government, a practice that exists within the gray areas of the law. To that end, the secretary in question is promoted to serve as the director of thousands of shell companies created under that umbrella, and provide her signature for their records.
For a while, it looks like this scam could essentially go on forever, with the web of empty businesses growing larger and larger as their real owners get richer and richer, without actually providing any services. (All that is required for a shell company, we learn, is a mailing address in a tax-friendly nation, and a signature on a couple of forms. It’s the perfect place to park your money so that governments can’t find it.) And then, suddenly, all hell breaks loose when John Doe leaks the documents to German journalist Bastian Obermayer.
Breaking The Fourth Wall
Mossack and Fonesca are sentenced to a paltry three months in jail. We catch up with them in their jail cell towards the end of the movie, just as they’re about to be released. But instead of stepping out of jail and back on the street, the two men head to a coat-rack in a large hangar, filled with equipment. They are clearly on a movie set. As they exit, they pass their Panamanian secretary, whom we then follow into a gigantic room covered in green screen. The movie appears to suggest that she is in fact John Doe, the whistleblower who blew the lid off the whole operation.
Though we don’t initially know that she and Ellen are both played by Streep, it becomes more and more obvious as the movie goes on. It’s a casting choice that’s already been called out and questioned online, with some going as far as to call it blackface. And though Streep’s skin isn’t darkened, the part does veer into extreme caricature. With wide, padded hips and a thick accent, wig and nail combo that bears an uncanny resemblance to Robin Williams’ Cruella De Vil look in the Mrs Doubtfire getting ready montage, it’s not exactly a flattering portrayal. What’s more, it’s one that seems especially unnecessary given what comes next.
As she walks towards an empty chair towards the middle of the room, Streep starts to shed her costume layers: off come her hip pads, her silicone breast enhancers, and her wig. Underneath, we find Ellen’s greyish-blonde curls — they go too. What we’re left with is just Streep, in all her glory. As Remezcla points out in a piece about Streep’s portrayal, the message here seems to be that in order to change things, we need to zoom out from our own nitty gritty concerns and look at the world on a more macro scale — the bigger picture. But that same effect could have been achieved by Streep removing one layer, rather than two, avoiding a casting misstep that seems designed to provoke outrage.
As she brushes her real hair out, Streep delivers a speech condemning the United States for its role as the biggest tax haven in the world. “Now is the time for real action,” she says. “It starts with asking questions.” How can we expect change when those in power (a thinly veiled reference to the Donald Trump-backed 2018 tax reform) are actively passing laws that reinforce the status quo?
It turns out that The Laundromat was just another spin, an extended PSA that ends with a celebrity endorsement. Throughout the film, there are countless references to the Bible passage about the meek inheriting the Earth. Streep, with her shawl draped across her torso and her arm in the air a la Statue of Liberty, appears to volunteer to act as their patron saint, as she cries: “Reform of the American tax system cannot wait!”
“The Laundromat” hits theaters September 27 and will be available to stream on Netflix on October 18.