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. 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.