Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas, Gary Oldman
Soderbergh is one of those directors whose work ricochets with some volatility, hitting peaks and troughs sometimes within the span of the same year. Yet in spite of this erratic stream of output, its reassuring to have him around. He also keeps threatening retirement. Yet the pull of making movies seems written into his DNA. This stuff is in him, and it needs out.
Sometimes it might be better kept inside. Earlier this year his Netflix Original High Flying Bird quietly landed as one of the streaming service’s best. A short eight months later, Soderbergh continues his attack on wealth with one of his clumsiest pictures to date.
Following a laughably garbled opening featuring Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas educating the audience – Adam McKay style – on what money even is (itself a dubious narrative), Soderbergh frames The Laundromat as a series of ‘secrets’ being imparted to the viewer. It’s quite patronising. The film springboards with a New York boating tragedy that leads to multiple deaths. Meryl Streep’s Ellen Martin is widowed in the incident, but the film’s tendency for chaotic tangents bypasses the human element to instead focus on catch-22 stories of liability and off-shore shell companies. Ellen’s luck doesn’t improve when she tries to purchase a luxury apartment overlooking the river; Russian interests buy the property out from under her. The life insurance settlement isn’t what she’d expected either.
While Ellen gets I, Daniel Blaked by the rigged financial world, Oldman and Banderas continue educating the audience and Soderbergh parades an avalanche of famous friends in front of the camera for self-gratifying cameos. McKay’s methodology from The Big Short keeps coming back to mind, but Soderbergh’s take repeatedly trips over its own feet. Oldman’s murky, misfiring European accent is an example of how distracting these segments are. They interrupt the stories instead of knitting everything together. All of these big-bucks names slumming it in Soderbergh’s project has a strange whiff of hypocrisy to it, too, like whenever the super-rich beg us to give to charity.
The Laundromat takes aim at a worthy target; the shifting sands of responsibility in the face of making money. Taking power away from this shady system by raising awareness ought to be a straight win, but the distractions and poor decisions keep mounting up. Streep does double-duty with a ridiculous fake nose, playing a Hispanic office worker – a choice so wrong-headed and counterproductive that it beggars belief. Banderas and Oldman play characters in the film, but continue breaking the fourth wall and speaking to camera. Whenever this happens The Laundromat becomes quantitatively worse. Pointed product placement for the likes of Don Perignon and Nike also take away from the film’s faltering sense of integrity. See also a throwaway script moment that cheekily indicts Soderbergh and the film’s writer Scott Z Burns for taking advantage of the system for tax credits. Smarmy doesn’t even cover it.
There’s a concerted effort made to show that the corruption of wealth crosses racial borders, and that African and Asian businesses are just as susceptible as those in the hands of ageing white men. These vignettes feature – as you would expect – actors of appropriate race. Our fourth ‘secret’ starring Nonso Anozie and Jessica Allain represents one of the more consistently engaging portions of the film, briefly running with the temperament of an SNL sketch. The broader representation amounts to a backhanded compliment, however, and cannot make up for the weirdness of The Streep Choice.
The show bows out with a bit on the Panama Papers and how detrimental the data leak was to these charlatan companies. We’ve been guided to enjoy the schadenfreude of the situation, but Banderas’ defense of big business is – awkwardly – the most impassioned moment here. Then it’s back to business. Streep delivers to camera a final summation, while shedding the trappings of both her characters. Wait… what did she say again…?
Soderbergh will be back, and better, and I’ll follow him there. For now, The Laundromat seems like a shell company all of its own.