Two years and four films since ending his self-imposed early retirement, Steven Soderbergh has been working at a characteristically furious clip. His marvelous NBA lockout drama “High Flying Bird” just dropped on Netflix a matter of months ago, and he’s already finished shooting another movie (“Let Them All Talk” starring Meryl Streep) set to premiere on the HBO Max streaming service next year. Between those two, the prolific director — who also serves under aliases as cinematographer and editor on all his films — knocked out “The Laundromat,” an oddball, archly comic examination of the 2016 Panama Papers scandal. This is in many ways a typical Soderbergh picture, in that it’s a sardonically amusing tale of economic malfeasance fixated on process and procedure. But it’s also weirdly half-baked and under-realized, the most slapdash of the director’s efforts since his 2002 “Full Frontal.”
Adapting Jake Bernstein’s 2017 book “Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite,” Soderbergh and his frequent screenwriter Scott Z. Burns are stuck with the unenviable task of dramatizing a news story that made most folks’ eyes glaze over during the opening paragraph. In 2015, an anonymous whistleblower leaked 11.5 million documents from the Panamanian financial service firm of Mossack Fonseca, exposing more than 200,000 offshore shell companies and a trillion-dollar underground industry rife with money laundering, tax evasion and often outright fraud. The financial machinations were deliberately convoluted to confound any attempts at investigation, and the details are enough to send your head spinning.
“The Laundromat” tries to explain it all in a comedic vein similar to “The Big Short,” casting Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, the disgraced attorneys who basically “host” the film by directly addressing the audience and modeling gaudy, expensive attire while mugging for the camera. As the German-born Mossack, Oldman affects a “Hogan’s Heroes” accent at a pitch so high it sounds like a cat being strangled. Banderas fares only slightly better, muttering complicated legalese as the two stroll through needlessly complicated tracking shots that stitch together the film’s many locations. Their smirky “ain’t I a stinker?” delivery grows tiresome almost immediately, giving the impression of an old “SNL” “wild and crazy guys” sketch that stubbornly refuses to end.
The victims’ side of the story is given over to a fictional character played by Meryl Streep, wearing a mousy wig as a Michigan widow defrauded by a crooked insurance company that won’t pay out after a tour boat accident kills her husband and 20 others. Adding insult to injury, her dream retirement condo is sold out from under her to a Russian corporate entity by a snooty real estate viper (Sharon Stone) and eventually Meryl gets mad enough to start digging around these messy paper trails, heading down to the Caribbean to get some answers herself.
“The Laundromat” never quite figures out how to fit Streep’s plucky heroine into the factual events, leaving her to look on as a bystander when the Feds finally catch up to a Mossack Fonseca accomplice played by Jeffrey Wright. Then, her whole plotline sort of just peters out. Sometimes the movie seems to be following an investigative thread, but Soderbergh and Burns haven’t hammered out their story into a logical progression of events.
Long, self-contained set-pieces — like one involving an African billionaire (the very funny Nonso Anozie) sleeping with his daughter’s college roommate, or a bizarrely violent Chinese interlude — feel like their own separate short films, complete with different shooting styles to add to the sensation of channel surfing. There’s a hilariously abrupt non-sequitur featuring “Saturday Night Live” vets Will Forte and Chris Parnell, but I can’t for the life of me tell you what it’s doing in the movie.
As a filmmaker, Soderbergh loves nothing more than showing how things work. His projects are highlighted by a documentarian’s zeal for process and financial transactions are a frequent focal point. Movies like “Side Effects” and “Unsane” smuggled sophisticated critiques of the pharmaceutical industry and for-profit medical services in the guise of lurid thrillers, while his tremendous 2009 “The Informant!” (also scripted by Burns) turned the Archer Daniels Midland price-fixing scandal into one of the decade’s loopiest comedies. That same year, Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” lured audiences with the promise of porn star Sasha Grey and then walloped them with a withering economic analysis.
But in all those pictures the subject matter was subordinate to the story, whereas in “The Laundromat” everyone kind of just shouts talking points into the camera. Sure, it’s clever when Oldman breaks the fourth wall to point out that for tax purposes the director of the movie you’re watching owns five corporations in Delaware (“even the writer has one,” quips Banderas) but less so when characters bemoan “men hiding behind piles of paper” and Meryl repeatedly asks if the meek are ever really going to inherit the Earth. There’s a lot of data here but very little in the way of characterization, and almost nothing for the audience to hang onto between lectures.
The film feels rushed, like the script was still a couple of drafts away from completion and everyone decided to shoot it anyway without thinking a lot of things through. (There’s a second role for Streep that I suppose constitutes a spoiler, so let’s just say that surely someone on the set must’ve mentioned the queasy racial politics of her portrayal.) I’m such a big Soderbergh fan I actually went back and watched “The Laundromat” again hoping I’d like it better the second time around. No such luck, and it pains me that a project that takes such big swings misses so many of them.