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Director Steven Soderbergh Takes A Look At Money Laundering In 'The Laundromat'


When Steven Soderbergh isn't making blockbuster comedies like "Ocean's Eleven," he's often directing movies designed to stoke outrage - in "Erin Brockovich," outrage about poison drinking water; in "The Informant!," about price-fixing; and now in "The Laundromat," critic Bob Mondello says, about money laundering.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When we meet them, lawyers Ramon and Jurgen are in the middle of a desert so far from civilization, there are cavemen around. This is the director's way of noting their schemes are as old as time. They, however, are modern with a vengeance - the sort of guys you'd find at the baccarat tables in an "Ocean's" movie, attired in tuxes, swilling cocktails, played by Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman and telling stories, all of which...


GARY OLDMAN: (As Jurgen Mossack) Are about money - the idea of money, the necessity of money, the secret life of money.

MONDELLO: They begin with the barter system appropriate to those cavemen and then progress to more complicated schemes designed to separate the average person...


OLDMAN: (As Jurgen Mossack) For someone to win...

MONDELLO: ...From his or her cash.


OLDMAN: (As Jurgen Mossack) ...Someone has to lose.

MONDELLO: Schemes involving offshore accounts and other legal but not entirely ethical means of hanging onto money. As they're explaining, we meet a lady affected by those schemes - Ellen, played by Meryl Streep, who watches her husband die in a boating accident, gets through the funeral and then goes to her lawyer.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Shoreline Cruises, like most of these outfits, have insurance for accidents and such.

MERYL STREEP: (As Ellen Martin) So basically, they drowned Joe and 20 other innocent people, and you can get insurance for that.

MONDELLO: Yeah, you can, but as she and the cruise company discover, that doesn't necessarily mean you're insured. When her payout is tiny, Ellen uses it to go try to find the insurance company, and what she finds instead...


STREEP: (As Ellen Martin) It's a law firm in Panama.

MONDELLO: She's in a newspaper office trying to get a reporter to cover the scam she's uncovered.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) And our readers need to know about them why?

STREEP: (As Ellen Martin) What they do is they set up companies - not real companies like a hotel or a hardware store. They set up what they call a shell, and they sell shells - not actual shells.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm sorry. You lost me.

MONDELLO: The world's most clueless reporter, but in fairness, money laundering is complicated, as we all discovered when the Panama Papers were leaked in 2016. Millions of documents that led down a rabbit hole of chicanery devised by Mossack and Fonseca, the real-life masterminds that Oldman and Banderas are playing - schemes that headquartered a quarter of a million corporations in one small town in Delaware, with one woman listed as the CEO of 25,000 of them and on and on...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) They're getting away with murder.

STREEP: (As Ellen Martin) Which is bad.

OLDMAN: (As Jurgen Mossack) Bad is such a big word for being such a small word.

MONDELLO: "The Laundromat" is a satirical explainer, not a movie that's driven by plot. It's designed to amuse and to infuriate and, in its final moments, to inspire, with words taken directly from the leaker of the Panama Papers - riveting, galvanizing words, some of which you will almost certainly not hear because director Soderbergh has a visual trick up his sleeve that will elicit dialogue-smothering gasps. He's a master, something you remember when "The Laundromat" is humming along deep in its spin cycle.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.