The Laundromat has plenty of flair but doesn't come out entirely clean
By Chase Hutchinson
This movie is a trip. It's one of the strangest and most eclectic I've seen this year. But I expected nothing less from director Steven Soderbergh whose films over the past several years have been wildly diverse in tone, genre, and content. The Laundromat is no different. However, when making such a strange story there is a tradeoff as it feels like the narrative is regrettably being pulled in two different directions. At its most straightforward, the story is about Meryl Streep playing Ellen Martin, a widow who is attempting to solve a mystery about insurance fraud that she is personally connected to. Her husband tragically died in an accident and now she is just trying to rebuild her life. At its most absurd, it's a fourth wall breaking that skewers corruption and those who exploit others. The problem is that it has its tongue so far in cheek that I am honestly shocked it is able to even get a word out. That makes it so the story feels more in service of these silly attempts at what I think is meant to be satire than the central character study which is made secondary.
The trouble is that is hard to take the more serious narrative of a widow trying to overcome a serious loss and also make a more wink wink film that feels like The Big Short ran wild through the story in a way that doesn't quite connect. It is split into 6 secrets that make it feel like an extended video essay just as The Big Short was. What makes this not work as well as that did is that it feels like Meryl Streep's character is often completely lost in the random asides and absurd sidetracks. Someone randomly is killed by a falling power line? Okay, I suppose I can handle that. Will Forte pops up for a sliver of a scene only to also die? Sure, I guess that's fine. A random, overly long melodrama side plot about a father sleeping with his daughter's college roommate who he has to bribe to not say anything? Okay, now I need to know what we are doing here. This feels like it could have been a miniseries and it would have been less haphazard. However, I am viewing this as a movie and as a movie, it is an utter mess. I still value the vision and flair that Soderbergh's direction brings. The writing just let him down.
I'm still glad I was able to see the movie as there is a world I may not have been allowed to
Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas are also recurring characters serving as both guides through the story as well as real life lawyers who prominently were involved with the Panama Papers scandal. They had to shut down their firm and recently sued Netflix over their portrayal in the film. They are the ones we spend the most time with but it's hard to call them main characters. Instead, they frequently adopt an over the top persona that differs from how they act as their real life characters. But they clearly are meant to be the same characters as they both talk about how they got involved with various clients who hid their money in offshore accounts even when they are talking directly to the audience. They frequently narrate and explain the various side stories that are shown not just as detached observers. They are implicated and involved in what are pretty gruesome plots. An extended sequence of organs being harvested from unwilling donors is particularly horrifying. It makes sense that the real life people would not be happy with this portrayal as the film ties them to some pretty heinous acts. It just feels strange and often out of place to see them both as well dressed snarky commentators as well as coldly cruel lawyers who do not care who they harm.
Many of these sequences are well constructed and that is what elevates the film into what I still would say is worth seeing. They feel like a microcosm of Soderbergh's career as they go all over the place from comedy to horror to drama and back to comedy in the blink of an eye. Sometimes these narrative shifts feel like they are perhaps too ambitious and often too jarring to completely pull them off. But they certainly buck conventional narrative structure and chart its own path. For that alone, I can't say that there are many films I can compare this to save for one of Soderbergh's own films. It feels most like 2011's Contagion but instead of a pandemic that is sickening everyone the disease is greed. The movie checks in on the people it touches and the lives it destroys. Some storylines are stronger than others and others get short shrift. Jeffrey Wright, for example, is tragically underused as a character who I thought would be crucial to the story only to then disappear just as quickly and never show up again. This is unfortunate as I was often left desiring more and being drawn to some of these stories. The characters that populate the stories are dynamic and interesting. It just often collapses under its own weight of trying to balance so many different stories.
The end result is one of unfinished work that could have used another cycle
The ending of the film feels just like a shrug. It more closely aligns itself with real life events and even intercuts news footage. I won't spoil the story, but it was thoroughly unsatisfying. There is a final reveal about Streep's character that gave her added depth but it was too little too late. It perhaps makes the story more interesting in retrospect as I try to think through what her role was in the story and whether the film was even about her being a character. It almost feels like the film abandons any pretense of her being a character and she largely speaks as herself. That is unfortunate as I thought she was good in the role that she was playing. She wasn't given a lot but she made the most of it. For it to just drop that at the end and no longer be interested in the story that it had been building is a letdown. It almost feels like they ran out of writing and just threw in the towel. The tradeoff ends up tearing apart this film as a narrative and doesn't do much to stand on its own as an argumentative piece. Both aspects lacked depth or a strong focus as it regrettably tried to do too much without thinking through how it all would play out.