“The Laundromat” makes a pointed political statement, while spinning out a garbled mess of a movie. In the process, director Steven Soderbergh mostly squanders a cast toplined by Meryl Streep, in a Netflix film that plays like a darkly satiric connection of vignettes that lost something – mostly, a coherent narrative – in the rinse cycle.
Billed as being “Based on Actual Secrets,” the movie seeks to illuminate the Panama Papers, the leaked trove of documents in 2016 that detailed systemic abuses by banking, business and legal entities, creating international shell companies to hide wealth and avoid taxes.
Instead of a clear recounting of those events – either through the firms involved, or the manner in which the story was broken – the eclectic Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns (“The Informant!”) seek to cheekily illustrate the themes in reporter Jake Bernstein’s book “Secrecy World” by employing direct-to-camera explanations from Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, playing the martini-sipping principals in Mossack Fonseca, the Panama City law firm at the center of the scandal.
Streep, meanwhile, portrays a widow deprived a full insurance settlement after a tragic accident, who begins nosing around about the shady and illicit doings of a shell company with the Orwellian name United Re-Insurance Group.
The movie repeatedly digresses, however, to explore several other interludes that basically parachute in, exposing tentacles of the operation in a way that’s moderately interesting but dramatically numbing.
If the goal was to take a complex financial scheme and make it relatable – in the manner, say, that “The Big Short” or HBO’s Bernie Madoff movie “The Wizard of Lies” admirably did – the effort falls thuddingly flat. Soderbergh’s well-known for his experimental streak, but a more straightforward approach, and certainly a more focused one, surely would have helped put the pieces together in more satisfying fashion.
It seems worth noting, too, that it’s entirely possible to share the movie’s political concerns and even outrage over the practices on display and still resent being beaten over the head with the message. The casting proves equally puzzling, with David Schwimmer, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone and James Cromwell popping up, among others, in what amount to throwaway roles.
Wrestling the Panama Papers into movie form might have worked better as some kind of premium-TV anthology series, or perhaps an HBO movie focusing intently on one quadrant of the corruption.
As is, “The Laundromat” tries to have it all ways, and proves every bit as unwieldy as that sounds. And while it might be interesting enough to give a look if you’re a Netflix subscriber, in terms of its advance theatrical release, save your quarters.
“The Laundromat” premieres Sept. 27 in selected theaters and Oct. 18 on Netflix. It’s rated R.