You might think that a picture on the 2016 Panama Papers scandal, featuring Meryl Steep and made by the filmmaker who brought us gritty war-on-drugs film Traffic, would offer a sober take on the whole sordid affair. But no. American director Steven Soderbergh’s school of thought appears to be that the most serious of lessons slide down easiest with a dollop of sugar plonked into a concoction as frothy as a large cappuccino.
Meryl Streep is Ellen Martyn, the surviving half of a couple whose boat was capsized whilst on vacation. Post-accident, the widow learns that the firm who owned the boat were in possession of a fake insurance document. This opens up a can of worms that catapults her down into a rabbit hole filled with revelations, where all roads lead back to Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, who created offshore entities for their ludicrously rich clientele to avoid tax and to preserve their assets.
The firm’s partners, Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, are wryly realised by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, respectively, and they are having the time of their lives. Oldman whips up the sort of ludicrously caricatured German accent that wouldn’t have been remotely out of place in 90s comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo. His compadre, Banderas, is a little less OTT, but still delivers the role with a knowing twinkle. They frequently break the fourth wall to give the audience exposition as to what the whole thing means. It’s a handy tool.
The story is spliced into a number of chapters marked ‘Secrets’. Ellen falls into the background as the vignettes roll out. One of the most rip-roaring, standout sections concerns a wealthy Nigerian business magnate undone by an act of infidelity with his daughter’s university roommate. All sorts of riotous hell is unleashed there.
This is Soderbergh in Ocean’s Eleven mode, and although he also unashamedly reaches for comparisons with The Big Short he falls, erm, short with his flashily dressed money-centric cautionary tale; the glitz means it’s hard to take seriously. It is – dare we say it? – alluring but also a little cheap.