Whether he's shooting movies, directing whole seasons of a TV show, or selling bottles of Bolivian liquor, Steven Soderbergh loves a problem. The bigger, the better. His more issue-oriented movies -- like the Oscar-winning drug crisis epic Traffic, the whistleblower dramas Erin Brockovich and The Informant!, and this year's organized sports parable High Flying Bird -- don't necessarily offer solutions or attempt to address the root of a topic head on. Instead, they approach a societal ill or a political quandary from a variety of angles, often using genre to wiggle into the complexities of the subject and an abundance of style to slice the information into digestible morsels. He makes the difficult go down easy.
Soderbergh's latest Netflix release, the proudly cheeky Panama Papers explainer The Laundromat, is a chance for him to work in a range of tricky storytelling modes. The presence of Meryl Streep, one of the most celebrated actresses of all time, in a starring role as Ellen Martin, a woman who untangles a web of financial corruption following the tragic death of her husband (James Cromwell), would perhaps make you assume this is a more straightforward narrative than it actually is. Instead, Scott Z. Burns's script, which was adapted from the nonfiction book Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite by Jake Bernstein, opens with jaunty, direct-to-the-camera narration from Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, playing real-life lawyers Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, who are currently suing Netflix in a last-ditch effort to stop the release of the movie (spoiler: the movie is on Netflix now), and they rarely cede the floor for very long. Streep is merely part of a larger scheme.
Still, she remains a star, captivating as she argues with a real estate agent in an empty Las Vegas condo or sprays an office with buckshot in a loopy fantasy sequence. But The Laundromat is a crowded constellation, one where actors like Sharon Stone, David Schwimmer, Jeffery Wright, Larry Wilmore, Will Forte, and Chris Parnell soar across the screen like wayward asteroids from other movies before departing forever. Though Streep shines, Soderbergh's telescope-like camera is always moving, pulling back to create a sense of scale and then zooming in on new details to create a sense of immediacy. "Confused yet?" asks Banderas at one point early on, signaling that the excess of the browser-crashing, too-many-tabs aesthetic might be the point.