Praise or blame The Big Short for what its success has wrought: the unchecked rise of the winky, starry movie-splainer, in which a typically dry and technical premise — subprime mortgages, international tax law — is recast in kicky colloquialisms and doused liberally with fourth-wall breaks and first-rank celebrities.
That bag of tricks is one Short‘s director Adam McKay employed again, a little more queasily, in last year’s loose Dick Cheney biopic Vice, and Steven Soderbergh now borrows with steeply diminishing returns in The Laundromat, a hectic bundle of big names and good intentions whose execution, alas, too often leans toward the skimpy, scattered, and overly glib.
Meryl Streep, Sharon Stone, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, David Schwimmer, and Gary Oldman are just a few of the actors who appear in the service of exploring the so-called Panama Papers — whose leak to the press in 2015 revealed decades of financial malfeasance by both public and private figures — via various globe-trotting, link-in-the-chain anecdotes.
There’s Ellen (Streep), a folksy retiree widowed in a freak boating accident who finds that the cruise company’s supposedly solid insurance policy is actually an empty promise forged somewhere adjacent to a Cayman Islands P.O. box; a skeevy businessman (Matthias Schoenarts) attempting to extort a Chinese official who’s already two steps, and at least three descending moral rungs, ahead of him; a pair of hapless gringos (SNL alums Will Forte and Chris Parnell) stumbling into some kind of shady backroom deal in Mexico; and maybe most memorably, a philandering millionaire (Nonso Anozie) practiced in the fine art of intra-family bribery.
All this is supervised by a dapper duo named Jurgen and Ramon (Oldman and Banderas, respectively), two bankers with a flair for fine tailoring and moral relativism. They carry most of the direct-to-camera exposition on their tuxedoed shoulders, sipping their martinis and breaking down the various intricacies of shell corporations and offshore tax loopholes. It’s cute, if hardly a fresh conceit; and their other apparent function, to add some kind of narrative glue to the movie’s loosely connected flotsam, turns largely on holding them responsible for, well, pretty much everything.
What might be hardest to believe about these stories, though, is that it’s Soderbergh telling them. If the Oscar-winning director doesn’t exactly have a signature through-line in his career, subject or style-wise — without a certified letter from IMDb, you’d be hard-pressed to conclusively prove that Oceans 11, Erin Brokovich, Magic Mike, and Traffic were all made by the same man — he does tend to have a sure hand in whatever he does. And the one that steers The Laundromat hardly feels like his at all; it’s more like McKay by proxy, or more approximately, by Xerox.
Which doesn’t mean the film is some kind of terrible black mark on his record; there are more than a few good nuggets in all those teachable moments. And if a motley crew of movie stars is what it takes to shine more light on bad laws, then let Meryl carry that torch in a wig and a bucket hat. But as a pure movie-going experience, it’s all kind of a wash. B–