The Laundromat is a scattered, disappointing effort by Soderbergh that fails to make the most its source material and talented ensemble.
Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns have collaborated multiple times throughout their careers, and team up once again for Netflix's The Laundromat. The film, which toured the fall festival circuit prior to being available to stream, is based on the true story behind the exposing of the Panama Papers - documents that detailed offshore accounts of some of the world's wealthiest and most powerful individuals (which were at times used for various illegal activities). The combination of Soderbergh, Burns, and an A-list cast headlined by Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman had a lot of promise on-paper, seemingly giving Netflix another awards contender to handle this year. Unfortunately, this one falls short of its aspirations. The Laundromat is a scattered, disappointing effort by Soderbergh that fails to make the most its source material and talented ensemble.
The Laundromat picks up when kindly grandmother Ellen Martin (Streep) tragically loses her husband in a boating accident. When the financial settlement is lower than expected, Ellen does some investigating and discovers the insurance company is part of a sprawling web of corruption that leads back to shady Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca, run by Jürgen Mossack (Oldman) and his partner Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas). Ellen becomes heartbroken to learn she is just one of many victims of these schemes, as the lawyers work with their associates to take advantage of an incredibly broken system.
The Laundromat is invariably going to draw comparisons to Adam McKay's Oscar-winning The Big Short, which took a similar approach to its handling of the 2008 housing crisis. Soderbergh looks to blend entertainment and eduction, employing a number of fourth-wall breaks and stylish sequences that explain various terms such as shell companies. While this ensures The Laundromat isn't a drag to watch (Oldman and Banderas in particular have a lot of fun hamming it up as sleazy lawyers), it perhaps isn't the most effective way of conveying the message Soderbergh is trying to deliver. At times, The Laundromat is almost guilty of trying too hard to be the next Big Short, which undercuts the anger and frustration the creative team feels about the topic at hand. Soderbergh's worked well with dark comedy before, but in this case, a more straightforward direction might have been better.
The film is also let down by Burns' script, which never really finds its footing as it bounces between different disconnected threads that all happen to be part of the same conspiracy. In a vacuum, some of these sequences work, but overall The Laundromat lacks natural narrative flow and cohesion as it works towards its endpoint. Crafting numerous vignettes does illustrate the global scope of Mossack Fonseca's plot, but the constant jumping around may be jarring for some viewers, and detracts from Ellen's storyline, which is arguably the most poignant on an emotional level. Additionally, each of the sections primarily serve to make the same point about corruption and power; unlike The Big Short, there isn't a slow and steady buildup that eventually boils over as everything ties together. In a way, that could be the idea here; the rich are going to game the system to their liking and there isn't anything "the meek" can do about it. However, that doesn't make for the most compelling cinematic story.
In regards to the cast, nobody truly stands out with a captivating performance, though Streep does her best to anchor her segments as an everyday person caught up in the insanity of what's going on. Though, it must be mentioned Soderbergh makes one choice with Streep that is very baffling and threatens to undermine the seriousness of The Laundromat's themes and ideas. As stated above, Oldman and Banderas really enjoy portraying Mossack and Fonseca, but their turns are ultimately somewhat one-note (and borderline cartoony) as they do little more than narrate stretches of the film with their exaggerated accents. It's amusing up to a point, and loses its charm a bit as the film goes on. Other actors like Jeffrey Wright, David Schwimmer, Sharon Stone, and more come in for a scene or two - but they aren't in The Laundromat enough to leave much of an impact.
At the outset of awards season, a searing exposé by the dream team of Soderbergh, Burns, and Streep sounded like a tantalizing possibility, but it's apparent why Netflix is prioritizing Marriage Story, The Irishman, and others for major nominations. The Laundromat isn't an awful film, but it's definitely scattershot and largely comes across as underwhelming. Those with a Netflix subscription might be inclined to check it out on a rainy day, but it's not something to move up to the top of the queue and prioritize over other titles (including others Netflix has in the pipeline). Hopefully, the next time Soderbergh and Burns work together, the results are better.
The Laundromat is now streaming on Netflix. It runs 95 minutes and is rated R for language, some sexual content, and disturbing images.
- The Laundromat (2019) release date: Oct 18, 2019