Making Money: La Casa de Papel / Money Heist
By Lance CharnesFebruary 21, 2019
Willie Sutton famously said (or, perhaps, didn’t say) that he robbed banks because that’s where the money is. But that’s not the only place the money is. It’s in casinos too (thus, the Ocean’s [insert number] films). It’s sometimes in mobsters’ homes (the focus of Widows, for instance). But if you’re going to commit possibly multiple felonies to get the stuff, why not do it big and go straight to the source?
The Spanish TV crime series La Casa de Papel (House of Paper) presents for our approval a raid on Madrid’s Royal Mint, where they literally make money. The hit series has come to America via Netflix, retitled Money Heist.
The setup: bespectacled El Profesor (Álvaro Morte) assembles a team of eight criminal misfits to carry out his elaborate plan to seize the Royal Mint, take hostages, and hold the place for 11 days while the crew prints €2.4 billion in brand-new banknotes. Each crew member has a particular specialty and (shades of Reservoir Dogs) goes by a city name. Of course, when the job goes down, the police, hostages, and the crew itself start to find the chinks in the grand plan’s armor and cause the whole enterprise to start spinning off its axis.
El Profesor is less an Iberian Danny Ocean than Gilligan’s Island’s Professor after breaking bad. Reserved and self-effacing, he seems like the kind of person who would spend a very long time focusing on the sort of minutia that went into his scheme to rob the Mint. “Reserved” doesn’t mean “diffident,” though; he rules his unruly accomplices by remote control with a confidence no academic geek could muster, and he acquits himself ably in the field when called on to do so. What’s his story? There’s still no real answer 11 episodes in, though he’s clearly got something to prove.
El Profesor’s chief opposition is Inspector Raquel Murillo (Itziar Ituño) of the National Police Corps, Spain’s city cops. Ituño believably toggles between steely resolve in the command post and jangled exhaustion at home. At work, she has to constantly defend her position as incident commander against a second-guessing Justice Ministry and an overbearing national intelligence agency; at home, she deals with the fallout of a nasty divorce from her abusive ex-husband (also a cop), a live-in mother spiraling into dementia, and a tweener daughter who’d like to see her mother more than in passing.
The dynamic between Raquel and El Profesor—played out both over the phone and in person—is both cat-and-mouse and first-date-getting-to-know-you. Soon, the inspector is learning how to think ahead of the crooks’ plan, while El Profesor becomes smitten with his distaff Javert. These scenes play as a nice counterpoint to the usual you’re-going-down/you-gotta-catch-me-first macho posturing common in other heist-gone-wrong dramas.
While the police and the crooks’ managements spar, there’s a soap opera erupting inside the Mint. The 67 hostages include Mint employees and a group of teenagers who were visiting the place on a field trip (not coincidentally, as it turns out). They experience enough affairs, secret pregnancies, phobias, and mean-girl YA politics to keep a telenovela going for a season or two.
Meanwhile, the crooks have their own internal problems. Berlin (Pedro Alonso), El Profesor’s on-scene deputy, is an egotistical sociopath with a penchant for going off-plan. Tokyo (Úrsula Corberó) is all attitude and misanthropy, jealous of her boyfriend Rio’s (Miguel Herrán) attraction to one of the teen hostages. Denver (Jaime Lorente), the gang’s designated screw-up, is hiding the comely Mint employee he was supposed to kill and rapidly falling into something like love with her. Identities are revealed, secrets are outed, and the various personalities manage to find the others’ sore spots as the gang members become as much prisoners as their hostages.
As with any heist saga, the plan itself is the star here. It’s the usual über-complex production you’re used to from the Ocean’s series, with backup plans for the backup plans. If El Profesor needs work after the heist is done, he might try tackling something less complicated, like landing people on Jupiter. Still, it’s fun to watch the machine work and the reversals double back on themselves.
The production is handsomely mounted, the actors chew on their characters with gusto, and each episode ends with the kind of hook that encourages binge-watching. La Casa de Papel premiered in May 2017 on Spain’s Antena 3 network as a limited-run series and spread throughout Europe and Latin America. It won an International Emmy for best drama series in 2018. Netflix—which is producing a third season for exclusive release—has said that Money Heist is its most successful non-English series ever.
La Casa de Papel / Money Heist marries the ultimate money grab with a tangled soap-opera-ready tale of unstable personalities poured into a pressure cooker and heated to boiling. Yes, it’s got little to do with the real world, and yes, it’s as fluffy as popcorn and just as addictive. If you’re tired of re-watching Clooney knock over casinos and want to see an even more insane high-end burglary, check out this series on Netflix.