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Short Take: The Laundromat

(Steven Soderbergh; USA, Netflix; Opening September 27)

I fondly remember the bodyguards hashing out what “sliding scale” payments mean in The Limey, and between his latest film and High Flying Bird, Steven Soderbergh has continued to scrutinize the social implications of financial dealings. Combining Soderbergh’s way-we-live-now comedy mode with a near-documentary zeal for explanation, The Laundromat unspools antic threads related to the Panama Papers data dump exposing the world of offshore accounts.

Frumpy retiree Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) falls prey to an insurance scam tapped into a factory of deception that spans Panama and the island of Nevis. Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman (assigned a German accent that he tears into with gusto) play partners at a Panama law firm, abetted down the food chain by Jeffrey Wright as a facilitator to countless shell companies.

Ellen traces her woes first to Wright, with one side story branching off to show a wealthy patriarch absolutely corrupted by the flimflammery. But there’s also much post–The Wolf of Wall Street/The Big Short direct address: an introduction and regular voiceovers wherein Banderas and Oldman’s unctuous caretaker characters lay out the facts and considerable fictions of high-roller money management.

Written by Scott Z. Burns, with Soderbergh co-producing, shooting, and editing (at his most centripetal), it’s a star-powered, experimental wake-up call, which chutes-and-ladders its way to distraction but keeps its eyes on the prize.