Remember when Steven Soderbergh retired from moviemaking? There was a brief moment when the 56-year-old writer-director declared he was done trying to jam his square-peg projects into a one-size-fits-all landscape. The guy who helped kickstart the Sundance Revolution, who reinvented himself via a meta-masterpiece (we’re talking about Schizopolis and yes, we’re willing to die on this hill) and reinvigorated George Clooney’s career, who’s made movies starring Julia Roberts and a KFC employee from West Virginia (respectively), and made us take Channing Tatum seriously — he was happy to go paint. Maybe he’d give us a premium-cable TV show ever so often.
Luckily for us, his self-proclaimed removal from the game was short-lived. Once Soderbergh decided he wasn’t done with this creaky old thing we call cinema, the man came back hard: a celebrity-filled caper goof (Logan Lucky), a sly and socially conscious genre exercise (Unsane), a free-form anti-capitalism screed (High Flying Bird). And while you wouldn’t necessarily call The Laundromat a natural culmination or a connective hub, it feels like all three of these post-hiatus works were partial dry runs for what he wanted to try here. A roundabout look at the Panama Papers scandal based loosely on Jake Bernstein’s book Secrecy World (and, per a title card, “actual secrets”), Soderbergh’s latest gathers a handful of famous faces to chart how clandestine financial networks contributed to a system of rot. It’s ambitious, sometimes to a fault. It’s all over the map, literally and figuratively. It’s a properly outraged movie for these outrageous times.
Our tour guides for Soderbergh’s divine comedy are Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) and Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman, rocking a Herzog-level German accent), the lawyers who ran the Panamanian firm identified as Culprit No. 1 in the leaked documents. A direct-address double act in bespoke suits, the two men walk the audience through the history of money and corporate malfeasance, from cavemen times to the golden age of offshore accounts. Slogans like “credit is the future tense of the language of money” are purred in between smirks on the beach and sipped cocktails in a nightclub. Or rather, on what’s blatantly presented as a nightclub set — artifice is a key part of the director and his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’ agit-pomo attack. Like the phony LLCs set up to take advantage of tax loopholes, the sequences underline the importance of facades over facts. Consider these luxurious lectures an early clue that, in terms of exposes, All the President’s Men this ain’t. (Should you crave a more straightforward investigative procedural, the Burns-directed/Soderbergh-produced The Report, about the cover-up of the CIA’s interrogation program, hits theaters in November.)
As for the audience surrogate, however, that responsibility falls on Ellen Martin. An elderly woman who becomes involved in a horrible tourist-boat tragedy, she’s trying to collect on a settlement so she can start her life over. Except the folks running the boat company can’t get their insurance claim paid out, thanks to a number of elaborate switch-ups and policy snafus. Martin starts snooping around, trying to figure out who’s responsible for giving her the shaft. Soon, she becomes the human face of every decent citizen who’s been screwed over by a system dedicated to benefiting billionaires. And given that this dogged muckraker is played by Meryl Streep, you anticipate some seriously cutting line readings are just around the corner. (Spoiler: They are.) The character’s frumpiness hides a steel backbone and a pitbull’s unwillingness to let things go. Streep could play this kind of crusader in her sleep, yet she uses the performance as a ballast to the theatricality, the Big Short-style flourishes (there will be chapter titles) and David Holmes’ ring-a-ding score. The heroine is a fictional creation. But the righteous anger the Oscar-winner invests in her is real.
Her windmill-tilting is the closest thing to a through line that The Laundromat gives you. The rest of the film keeps driving down narrative side streets, including a West Indian insurance broker (Jeffrey Wright) with a big secret, a SoCal mogul (Nonso Anozie) who risks being blackmailed by his daughter (Jessica Allain) over infidelities and a European businessman (Matthias Schoenaerts) trying to strike a deal with Chinese bureaucrat’s wife (Rosalind Chao). Sharon Stone shows up as a real estate agent; two SNL veterans drop by for cameos as Doomed Gringo #1 and Doomed Gringo #2. At one point, Soderbergh drops a huge self-own about his own dealings with shell companies. The whole thing occasionally threatens into devolve a spot-the-star game of musical genre chairs, where you find yourself in the middle of farce until the music stops, and then an espionage thriller starts up.
If you think the movie sounds a little scattershot, you’d be right. Not all of it works; some of its detours turn into dead ends, and god bless the actors from trying to make their data-dump dialogue sound a little less dogmatic. But the cumulative effect of what the filmmakers are up to — the fact that they’re not diving into the “what” of the Panama Papers per se, but why such underground financial networks exist in the first place and how they’re sustained — is damning enough to knock you over. You can feel the bile rising as it maps every passed buck and 1-percenter giving another a pat on the back. Then, in one climactic tracking shot, everything boils over. The various sets are torn down or disassembled. A mysterious, lumpen character we’ve been following turns into a mouthpiece. The riot act is read. And The Laundromat ends on a pre-credits image that feels destined to become a meme. Everyone’s hands are dirty, it tells us. Maybe it’s time hold folks accountable and clean up our act.