January 9, 2020 – Steven Soderbergh's latest film is a lively and darkly comic exposé on the widespread practice of money laundering and illegal tax havens. This particular story is based on the Panama Papers and the the Wang Lijun incident in China, but this kind of thing still goes on. Such scandals are even enveloping the White House.
Meryl Streep stars as Ellen Martin, a widow who is cheated out of a wrongful death settlement because an insurance company turns out to be a worthless shell company organized by a corrupt Panamanian law firm run by Jürgen Mossack (played by Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (played by Antonio Banderas). Mossack and Fonseca open the film with a fanciful explanation of how money works, and they pop up periodically in the film to explain shell companies and illegal tax shelters.
Ellen Martin becomes obsessed with how such a thing could happen with the insurance company. Then she is again the victim of a similar scheme when some shady Russian businessmen steal a Las Vegas real estate deal out from under her. She begins to do her own investigation, tracking down Mossack and Fonseca in Panama, where they have created over 200,000 shell companies in countries like the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands. They even had offices in Wyoming, Nevada and Florida.
The movie includes two other subplots which also involve illegal tax havens and shell companies. One is the Wang Lijun incident where a shady English businessman (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) is poisoned by a Chinese woman (played by Rosalind Chao) he was trying to extort. The whole affair backfired, causing a major political shakeup and scandal in China.
The other subplot involves a wealthy African businessman (played by Nonso Anozie) who uses a shell company to bribe his own daughter (played by Jessica Allain) into keeping secret his extra-marital affair with a younger woman. The plot blows up in his face. His wife (played by Nikki Amuka-Bird) and daughter end up at the Panama office of Mossack and Fonseca, where they learn the truth about the shell companies they own.
Like the movie “The Big Short” (2015) the fourth wall gets broken frequently in this film, as the actors, particularly Banderas and Oldman, turn to the audience to explain complex financial arrangements. At the end of the film, Streep reveals a second character she has portrayed in the movie, but stepping out of character, and out of her concealing wig and makeup to tie these shady financial dealings into political campaign finance reform.
Like “The Big Short,” this film blows the lid off of corruption infecting global financial markets, but it also shows the real life consequences of this corruption. Like the real life Mossack and Fonseca, the fallout from the Panama Papers, Operation Car Wash and ongoing investigations in Brazil, the United States and elsewhere, parts of this movie are based in fact, and this global scandal continues to unfold up to this very day. This film rates a B.
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