Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh’s latest, The Laundromat, is a criticism of late-stage capitalism that is nothing like Adam McKay’s The Big Short. Whereas The Big Short took on the incredibly complex and near-impossible to understand financial crisis of 2007-2008 and its roots in the United States housing bubble and the cast of characters involved, The Laundromat takes on the incredibly complex and near-impossible to understand world of Mossack Fonesca & Co., the subject of the Panama Papers, tax evasion, shell companies, corporate services, and the cast of characters involved. And unlike The Big Short’s floor-to-ceiling star-studded cast and fourth wall breaking, The Laundromat is filled floor-to-ceiling with stars and fourth wall breaking. And where The Big Short is a criticism of greed and government shortsightedness, The Laundromat is a criticism of greed and government shortsightedness. See, nothing in common.
But seriously, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, The Big Short is successful and entertaining and never shrill. The Laundromat, however, is teetering on failure, is occasionally entertaining, and when it ends on with a millionaire actress lecturing the audience for not holding the American government accountable for allowing financial crimes to happen on their doorstep, well, it comes off as kind of shrill. And icky. And exploitative. And really, really icky.
Honestly, I can’t tell which is more upsetting – one of the most recognizable and successful actresses of ever reading the words of John Doe, the anonymous person who alerted the world to decades of off-shore financial crimes, or that she is in Brownface for parts of the movie. Yep, Meryl Streep, who has played a Polish concentration camp survivor, a British Prime Minister, an Australian grieving mother, a mid-Western housewife, can now add Latina to her resume. I’m sure there is a dramatic reason for it, but it kind of escapes me. All I can see is gimmick. At the end of the day, Meryl Streep plays 2 roles in The Laundromat. One is a grieving Michigan widow. The other is a middle-aged Panamanian office worker.
The framing device for The Laundromat is inventive and creative but still kind of fails for trying to explain too much, too fast. Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas play Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonesca, the Mossack and Fonesca in Mossack Fonesca & Company. They move through the story like a Shakespearian chorus, espousing exposition and background and trying to explain the ins and outs of off-shore banking and shell companies and dummy corporations and financial malfeasance. Almost all their scenes have a touch of the surreal and the bizarre. They are the connective tissue that almost holds The Laundromat together.
But there isn’t enough of a movie here for Misters Oldman and Banderas to hold together, no matter their wit and charm and charisma. The Laundromat is more a collection of stories than an actual movie. A collection of stories that have at their centre the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonesca & Co. does not a movie make. I mean, there could have been a movie here, there is a fascinating story behind the Panama Papers. And there are shadows and hints and moments that infer the better movie. And that may be the most disappointing aspect of The Laundromat – this could have been, should have been better. Steven Soderbergh directing a script by Scott Z. Burns, the guy that wrote The Informant! This should have been an over-the-wall-smashing-into-some-poor-schumck’s-windshield homerun. Instead, it’s all kinds of unnecessarily weird and tasteless and exploitative and way, way, way too blunt and shrill. And it apes The Big Short way too much.
What is good about The Laundromat? The performances are great, nearly every single one of them. Meryl Streep is ethereal as the grieving widow, is a stereotype as the Latina office worker. Misters Oldman and Banderas are awesome. Watching Melissa Rauch was all kinds of awesome. I only knew her from Big Bang Theory and here she is holding her own in scenes with Meryl frickin Streep. Now I must do a deep dive into her IMDB page and see what I’ve been missing.
What else is good? David Holmes score is great. But then I love David Holmes music and I might be biased. I love, love, love his work. The first chunk of the movie is good, as it follows Meryl Streep’s Ellen Martin as she deals with grief and insurance companies, as her story intertwines with Robert Patrick and David Schwimmer as business owners trying to deal with tragedy. And then it all goes off the rails and gets too enthralled with its own importance and becomes dull and blunt and shrill.
There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than watching The Laundromat. And some of them are on Netflix as well. It’s just that, well, we have a limited amount of heartbeats and maybe, just maybe, we should look for better ways to spend a couple of hours than watching an a should-have-been-great movie. Watch The Big Short instead. Especially if you’re looking for some entertaining criticism of late-stage capitalism.