“The Laundromat” is not about your local Suds-N-Go. The title of the new Steven Soderbergh movie, written by regular collaborator Scott Z. Burns and taken from the book “Secrecy World,” by Jake Bernstein, refers to money laundering. In short, this is the “Panama Papers” scandal of 2016, given the “Big Short” treatment so that our eyes won’t glaze over from all that data.
Does it work? Enough for an evening’s diversion — “The Laundromat” is opening locally at the Kendall Square, but it’s a Netflix production and will debut on the streaming service on Oct. 18 — but not enough to get you good and mad, the way you should and the filmmakers intend.
The 11 million leaked documents from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca revealed a wide range of crimes: tax evasion, fraud, money laundering, and so forth. The company specialized in creating shell companies — hundreds of thousands of them over the decades — for clients to hide money or hide from the law.
“The Laundromat” leads us in by focusing initially on one small-time victim, Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), a retiree who loses her husband (James Cromwell) when a tour boat sinks; the tour operator’s insurance company turns out to have disappeared down a rabbit hole of shells within shells. Latter-day Streep — here and in “Big Little Lies” — seems to be about finding the obsessives who live inside seemingly pleasant older women, and Ellen ends up on a voyage to Nevis in search of the man responsible (Jeffrey Wright).
He’s not, of course; he’s just another grifter in the middle. “The Laundromat” is narrated — hosted, really — by lawyers Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), two grinning fat cats who guide us through the arcane rules of stashing ill-gotten gains in offshore entities. These segments play like cinematic vaudeville bits, with a cartoonishly upbeat score (from David Holmes) and lots of fourth-wall-breaking. They’re cute, and that cuteness cuts against the grain of the point the movie’s making — that these guys were thieves who enabled bigger thieves.
After a while, the movie wanders away from Streep’s character and delves into other heroes and villains of the scandal: Chris Parnell and Will Forte as two “doomed gringos” (per the credits) whose demise spells trouble for Mossack Fonseca; an African businessman (Nonso Onozie) living the high life in America until his wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and daughter (Jessica Allain) bring him down to earth; a sleazy banker (Matthias Schoenaerts) trying to shake down the wife (Rosalind Chao) of a Chinese Politburo member.
All these segments are well made and engaging, but their lack of interconnectedness reduces “The Laundromat” to a sketch comedy, and random guest appearances by actors like Sharon Stone (as a Vegas real estate saleswoman) and David Schwimmer (as a small-time lawyer) only add to the scattergun atmosphere. Toward the end, there’s an exquisite little twist that you may see coming but I certainly didn’t, but like so much in this glib exercise, it reflects mostly the cleverness of the people who came up with it.
Is the Panama Papers debacle — in which a global shadow network of wealth and malfeasance was revealed that included world leaders, public officials, and hundreds of others in over 200 countries — even possible to squeeze into a 95-minute film? Probably not, so maybe we should be thankful someone even tried. Still, if “The Laundromat” doesn’t anger you into wanting to find out more, it’s a waste of Soderbergh’s time and ours.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Scott Z. Burns, based on the book “Secrecy World” by Jake Bernstein. Starring Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Nonso Onozie. At Kendall Square. 95 minutes. R (language, some sexual content, disturbing images)