The Laundromat, The Big Short-esque collection of celebrity-laden vignettes explaining the ins and outs of a recent financial crisis, is a showcase for Steven Soderbergh’s vim and vigor. The film, now out on Netflix, zips through colorful stories as narrated by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, who play Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, the partners behind the law firm at the center of the Panama Papers scandal. They ought to be the villains, but Soderbergh, in using them as audience shepherds, turns them into our winking pals. The real villain at play is an abstract: human greed.
Soderbergh illustrates the point by splitting the film into chapters, each given a clever title (e.g. “Secret Number One: The Meek Are Screwed”). Each also deals with a new story. In one, we meet a recent widow Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who finds that the settlement money from the accident that took her husband (James Cromwell) has vanished into shell corporations. Another focuses on a rich family whose troubles are smoothed over by the promise of shells trading hands.
This relative fracturing and the difficulty in investing in any one character isn’t a problem for Soderbergh, who thrives on such high-wire energy. But The Laundromat’s righteous anger and ambition folds itself in knots. Though you may not recognize her immediately, Streep has more than one role in the movie. In addition to Ellen, she also shows up in the movie as a Panamanian office drone, sporting a large prosthetic nose, body padding, a black wig, and a hammy accent.
As the movie unfolds, it becomes clearer that Soderbergh is trying to make a point about the power that anonymous cogs in the machine can have in dismantling it, as well as the nature of storytelling, but those intentions are revealed so late in the game that any allaying effect is muted. His final gambit is also so big that it’s jolting, breaking apart the already-fourth-wall-breaking structure of the film to point a finger back at the audience, telling us to pay attention to the issues the film is addressing. That’s all well — particularly as the film even points out Soderbergh’s own use of shells — but the borderline brownface Streep puts on, whatever the ultimate intention, is enough of a stumble to dampen the film’s fire.
It’s a pity given how smoothly Soderbergh manages to pave over the movie’s other flaws. He knows how to make a fun movie (lest we forget, he’s responsible for Ocean’s Eleven, Logan Lucky, and Magic Mike), and the cast — which also includes Sharon Stone, Jeffrey Wright, David Schwimmer, and a couple of SNL alums who are billed as “Doomed Gringo #1 and #2” — are all more than charming enough to make you forget that each character only gets a nugget of screen time.
Streep as Ellen is also wonderful, and only gets more fun to watch the closer her unassuming, middle-aged character gets to unraveling the machinations of the unfathomably rich. It just makes it a bit of a shame when the film eventually leaves her behind, as it does with every character who isn’t Mossack or Fonseca. Oldman and Banderas also manage to have fun, strolling through others’ sets as they explain the ins and outs of money (the film begins with them walking through a group of cavemen), but as omniscient narrators, they’re too macro to the story to be as emotionally compelling as Ellen.
The format Soderbergh has settled on makes sense as an address of the things the rich get away with every day, but the slick, self-satisfied approach isn’t as effective as the scenes in which we’re left with Ellen, who is working through her grief and reckoning with the idea that justice may be out of reach. That earnestness feels more effective than archness; it may be less fun, but fun shouldn’t be the central concern when getting a message like this across.
The Laundromat is now out on Netflix