Hollywood often has a fraught time trying to depict Wall Street venality. It’s understandable: Complex financial securities don’t easily translate to film.
Sometimes it’s done well, like when Gordon Gekko explained hostile takeovers over lunch in “Wall Street” or Margot Robbie preposterously expounded on subprime mortgages from a bubble bath in “The Big Short.”
But sometimes Hollywood makes a hash of it and the latest director to get caught overreaching is Steven Soderbergh. His film “The Laundromat ” is as opaque, disjointed and unwise as a credit default swap.
Soderbergh has reteamed with screenwriter Scott Burns to try to illustrate how the world’s richest people hide their money from the tax man, inspired by the revelations in the leaked Panama Papers, a massive trove of 11.5 million documents.
The papers — including thousands of shell company networks and tax havens — came from the database of the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca. There are many ways to humanize this trove, but the filmmakers have decided that large doses of farce will suffice. It does not.
They also decided that several interconnected stories would be best, making it a sort of “Love Actually” for the financial set. So we go from a boat tragedy in upstate New York to a fabulously rich but manipulative African-born businessman in Los Angeles to some high-stakes corruption in China. Despite 2.6 terabytes of data from the Panama Papers, the filmmakers have fictionalized most of the characters and none seem real at all. “Think of them as fairy tales that actually happened,” we are told.
Soderbergh has squandered a lot of acting talent, including from Jeffrey Wright, David Schwimmer, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, Larry Wilmore, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rosalind Chao, James Cromwell and Sharon Stone. We get not just one but two Meryl Streep roles — and it’s still a dud.
Soderbergh mixes dread, sorrow and mass deaths with comedic sections and a jazzy score. There are images of organ harvesting, a fantasy gun rampage, gangland hits, vomiting, a freak death and plenty of fourth wall breaking. He both meanders and leans into quick editing cuts. He’s trying to keep the viewer off-kilter and confused — just like Wall Street likes it. But the tonal shifts are painful and none of the chapters are long enough to engage viewers. Worst, no new ground is broken here. It’s a film — to borrow a financial term — that’s derivative.
The connecting tissue between the different stories are the characters of Mossack and Fonseca, the lawyers accused of being money launderers. They’re played — very much over the top — by Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman, our ever-present guides to this world of financial sordidness.
Often dressed in tuxes and sipping martinis, Mossack and Fonseca archly explain where they came from, how money works and how high finance bends to the whims of the superrich. Instead of villains, they are Eurotrashy bon vivants. Muddying the waters, Oldman and Banderas also portray the real tux-less Mossack and Fonseca as a pair of cold board room managers whose work is upended.
Streep gets the most screen time as a sort of avenging blue-collar heroine trying to uncover the Mossack and Fonseca shenanigans. “Somebody has to sound the alarm,” she says. But her story sort of peters out as we flash to other chapters. “The Laundromat” might have worked better if it was more like a Streep-led “Erin Brockovich” than the anthology “Traffic,” but Soderbergh has one last trick up his sleeve with Streep right at the end and a lesson about illusion. Alas, by then, you will have lost interest.
The director ends on a righteous note but he’s not earned it. He has so humanized his villains that we may feel sorry for them instead of resting the blame for every school without books or municipal bridge that’s collapsed at their feet. We are told the biggest tax haven in the world is the United States and urged to do something about it. But Soderbergh admits he’s taken advantage of the system, too — he admits to using several shell companies in Delaware. Like the film he made, the director is compromised.
“The Laundromat,” a Netflix release, is rated R for language and adult situations. Running time: 93 minutes. One star out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits