At a time when real life seems to be meshing inextricably with the narrative and hyper-emotional contours of escapist entertainment, how can movies possibly reflect, much less make sense of, real life?
That is the question faced by filmmakers as disparate in style and sensibility as Kathryn Bigelow and Adam McKay, as they have tried to process the news of the day into cohesive, illuminating narratives. Now Steven Soderbergh rises to the challenge with "The Laundromat," an intriguingly interpretive if scattershot and tonally uneven attempt to deconstruct the financial and legal arcana contained in the massive data-dump known as the Panama Papers.
More than 11 million documents from a Panama-based law firm named Mossack Fonseca were leaked by an anonymous whistleblower in 2016, when journalist Jake Bernstein and a team of colleagues from around the world pored over them and discovered a web of interconnected shell companies designed to protect the assets of tax-averse rich people and the ill-gotten gains of outright criminals.
Based on Bernstein's book "Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite," Soderbergh's "Laundromat" seeks to make sense of a story that is breathtakingly complex, with enough players and layers and locations and implications to make one's head spin. He's handled this kind of gnarly narrative before, in films like "Traffic" and "Contagion." Here, working with the screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, he takes a novel approach, creating an anthology of darkly comic vignettes to illustrate the grave premise that, in the face of global, anonymous, unregulated corruption, the little guys have zero chance at justice or accountability.
Cue the theme from "That's Entertainment!"
And Soderbergh does try to make "The Laundromat" entertaining, casting Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, who glide through the proceedings as tuxedo-wearing narrators, swilling martinis while they explain how currency and credit work, how dummy corporations are created, and why, as an early chapter heading puts it, "The Meek are Screwed." After an impressive opening shot in which the duo take the audience from a desert inhabited by primitive tribesmen to a flashy nightclub, "The Laundromat" travels to modern-day Lake George, New York, where we meet a sweet lady named Ellen (Meryl Streep), the pink-tennis-shoe-and-funny-hat-wearing foil for Mossack and Fonseca, and the audience's guide through their most questionable practices, as well as the fine distinctions between privacy and secrecy, legal tax avoidance and illegal fraud.
The conceit of "The Laundromat" - which unfolds as a series of separate but connected set pieces - has understandable appeal for Soderbergh, who rather than a sober-minded tutorial sets out to build a diverting, wryly amusing Trojan Horse to sneak his most sobering information past filmgoers' defenses. And he brings distinct stylistic signatures to each chapter, filming an episode involving an adulterous Nigerian businessman in Los Angeles with the sunny visual language of a sitcom installment, then going bigger and darker for a grim sequence set in a hotel room in China.
That scene features a queasily convincing performance by Matthias Schoenaerts as a go-between for corrupt government officials in need of a human "white glove" so that their own hands won't get dirty. And "The Laundromat" is crowded with similarly strong performances, not just from its three leads but Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone and Nonso Anozie, who appear and reappear throughout the stories-within-the-big-story with dizzying speed.
As inventive as "The Laundromat" is as an information vector, though, its semi-ironic tone is at odds with the content at hand: This is a movie that often feels like it's fighting itself, asking viewers to be charmed by Oldman and Banderas's characters one moment, and - maybe? - outraged the next. It all comes to a head in the film's fabulously twisty final scene, which plays simultaneously like a clever metaphor, bravura moment of reckoning and attempt at sincerity that comes too late to undercut the inevitable paralysis that has set in over the past 90 minutes.
By this time, torches and pitchforks - or, more realistically, legal and financial reform - are clearly what's needed. But, as "The Laundromat" both abhors and exemplifies, martinis and tuxedos have proved to be much more seductive.