Simultaneously dull and didactic, Steven Soderbergh’s second Netflix film of 2019, The Laundromat, is essentially an unfunny version of The Big Short, featuring a racist depiction of a Latina woman by Meryl Streep sporting a giant prosthetic nose. Streep also portrays Ellen Martin, a woman widowed by a freak boating accident who becomes obsessed with discovering the dark origins behind the fraudulent insurance company who scammed her and other survivors. Scattershot in its narrative approach, yet singular in its heavy-handed message that Money is Bad, The Laundromat will put you to sleep either due to its uninvolving jargon-laden vignettes, or the punch-you-in-the-face obviousness of its sermonizing. Even if you buy into its message, The Laundromat is an embarrassment.
Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas serve as tour guide narrators guiding us through the real-life story of the so-called Panama Papers which revealed the names of numerous politicians and upperclass individuals using offshore accounts to hide their financial dealings. Oldman and Banderas are Mossack and Fonseca respectively, the self-satisfied law firm partners overseeing Mossack Fonseca in Panama City, which created shell companies and used offshore accounts to keep the hyper-wealthy in their elite lifestyle without having to deal with things like taxes or ethics. The tone of the duo’s narration strives for a quasi-lighthearted romp, but comes across as tired and flat—it is a blatant attempt at humor, which makes it all the more unfunny. The large ensemble cast is wholly underutilized, with drawn-out episodes feeling disconnected from each other, leaving the viewer wondering whether any of the narrative threads will ever ultimately come together into a coherent whole (spoiler: they kinda don’t).
Let me address Streep’s Latina portrayal and The Nose. Mossack Fonseca is depicted as using administrative staff members as “owners” or “directors” of the shell companies; certain employees just sign their names on official documents to legitimize the ruse. One of these employees, Elena, is portrayed by a heavily-makeuped Streep in a paunchy bodysuit, enormous eyeglasses, and speaking with an atrocious pseudo-Latina accent. Perhaps this minstrel show is meant to play for laughs, but the very first sight of her was appalling to me. In the final scene (spoiler, I guess? but please don’t watch this film), Elena disrobes and becomes Ellen, who then becomes Streep herself, pontificating into the camera about the evils of the wealthy elites and corrupt politicians before ending the film in a Statue of Liberty stance while holding aloft a hairbrush. It is arguably one of the most embarrassing film codas I have ever witnessed, rivaling Vice‘s atrocious post-credits scene for its self-congratulatory banality. McKay’s films are also smugly offensive turds, but at least they weren’t this boring or racially backwards.
“The meek will inherit the Earth.” This biblical beatitude is intoned numerous times throughout The Laundromat, but the religious imagery is strikingly gratuitous and fails to honor Christ’s words. In the final act, Ellen sits in an empty church and offers up an angry imprecatory prayer to God, lamenting that the meek don’t seem to be actually inheriting much of anything in this life, and that those responsible need to go to jail. If it were an honest heartfelt rage against theodicy—a cinematic Job moment—it would have been touching. But Soderbergh’s direction, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’ script, and Streep’s acting all come across as performative and artificial, discounting any tough honest questions due to the stagey insincerity. Indeed, the entire aesthetic of The Laundromat feels purposefully fake, a digitized CGI sheen to the environments where the actors overly perform their lines with a cynical phoniness. While I’m all for the meek inheriting the earth and the liberation of our economic system from unjust loopholes for the super wealthy and powerful—Jesus may have been on to something with that Sermon on the Mount—The Laundromat‘s ostentatious style properly distracts from its overbearing message. It’s about as exciting as going to a real-life laundromat and watching the spin cycle. In fact, that might be a better use of one’s time. At least it would provide you with some clean clothes. Soderbergh’s Laundromat is all washed up.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5865326/