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Netflix’s ‘The Laundromat’ Runs Meryl Streep Through a Spin Cycle

Steven Soderbergh’s second film for the streaming service this year loses its star in all of its context

Netflix/Ringer illustration

What more do you want from Meryl Streep? What more do you want for Meryl Streep? Three Oscars out of 21 nominations. Several hundred wacky accents, several dozen lifetime-achievement-award-type speeches, roughly 8 billion memes. Two Mamma Mia! movies. One title: Greatest Actress of Her Generation. At least. She’s seen it all, done it all, been it all. She’s played the Iron Lady; she’s played the Iron-er Lady. But the last movie that capably summoned the full Category 5 force of her powers, that suitably challenged her, that really deserved her was … 2009’s It’s Complicated. Yeah. Her last decade has not exactly been a waste of time. (Six Oscar noms, with one win for, uh, The Iron Lady.) But it’s hard to quell the fear that time is wasting her.

What more I wanted from Meryl Streep, apparently, was to hear her deliver the line, “We went and got mai tai after mai tai after mai tai.” There’s our girl, wistfully reminiscing on the floor of her new Las Vegas condo, surrounded by rapt grandchildren, recounting her early whirlwind courtship with her longtime husband (dead in a boat-tour capsizing that killed 21 people) and yet radiant with the sort of infectious joy-in-grief that only one woman on earth can provide. Every mai tai its own heartbreaking pirouette. God. You want everything for her, or at least more for her than yet another maddeningly good-not-great movie can provide.

It is early in The Laundromat, Steven Soderberg’s alternately fizzy and stuffy new film about, uh, money laundering. Shell companies. Insurance scams. Bribery. Fraud. Tax evasion. (As distinct from tax avoidance.) Briefly, gruesomely: organ harvesting. Human greed; inhuman corporate corruption. In short, “The secret life of money!” as Gary Oldman explains at the onset in a ludicrous German accent, brandishing a martini and rocking the first of several increasingly gaudy tuxedos. Oldman is flanked by Antonio Banderas in the first of several fourth-wall-demolishing, dream-sequence-as-explainer scenarios, like a suaver and gaucher version of The Big Short, more playful but also far less focused.

The boys are playing supervillain lawyers for the real-life offshore law firm Mossack Fonseca, exposed by the massive, anonymous, damning 2015 data leak known as the Panama Papers. (Written by Scott Z. Burns, the film is based on the journalist Jake Bernstein’s 2017 nonfiction book Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite.) This week the actual supervillain lawyers sued, naturally, to prevent The Laundromat’s release on Netflix on Friday, after the film’s brief and not terribly successful limited theater release. And shit, already we’ve lost Meryl in all this context. You see the problem, which is that this 90-odd-minute cerebral goof of an Issues Movie is hell-bent on trying to explain way too many problems to you.

Streep plays Ellen Martin, a cheerful everywoman who does indeed lose her husband Joe (James Cromwell) in an onscreen boating accident, her shocked face beatifically framed in gorgeous Steven Soderbergh light as she registers the fact that she’s suddenly underwater. The Laundromat’s primary thrust, before it loses interest, involves the nefarious nesting doll of insurance companies that screws her and all the other victims out of a reasonable settlement. Further indignities await: Sharon Stone, as a harried realtor, pops by the Vegas condo shortly after the mai tais line to announce that the unit has instead been sold to shifty Russians with their own untoward shell-company schemes. Soon Streep is peering through the wrong end of the condo’s front-door peephole, bewildered and furious and determined to Get to the Bottom of This. The movie never gives her the chance.

What more do you want from Steven Soderbergh? His bonkers filmography contains multitudes to the extent that there’s really multiple Steven Soderberghs, and The Laundromat is codirected by several of them. The Netflix-weaponizing industry disruptor who only just in February graced us with (the much quieter, but also shrewder) High Flying Bird. The corporate-greed-exposing comedian who made The Informant!; the corporate-greed-exposing Serious Director who made Erin Brockovich. The heist-movie genius who won’t ever top Ocean’s Eleven but can still deliver, say, a silly lightning-bolt thrill like Logan Lucky’s George R.R. Martin–based prison riot. The Laundromat tees up Streep as a Brockovich-esque avenging angel ready to expose some fraud and pull some wacky scams of her own, but aside from a few worthy flourishes (one involves a shotgun), she’s benched for unconscionably long stretches as the conspiracies mount. It’s a metaphor, sure: The system overwhelms her. But it’s still awfully frustrating.

What we get instead is an uneasy mixture of globetrotting bravado (Panama City, the West Indies, China, Delaware) and sneak-attack cameos (Will Forte and Chris Parnell do not fare well in Mexico) that sometimes stretch into endless vignettes. Nonso Anozie, as an L.A. multimillionaire and philandering husband, anchors an agreeably caustic mini-soap-opera (he is banging his daughter’s college roommate) that unfortunately stretches on for nearly 20 minutes and ends with a thorough explanation of the concept of bearer shares. (“The world is just men hiding behind piles of paper,” snaps Nikki Amuka-Bird as the scorned wife, which triples the whole sequence’s impact in just 10 words.)

Throughout, Banderas and Oldman pop up in ever-louder tuxedos to further boast about their deviousness, chewing so much scenery that eventually the very soundstage they’re standing on is nearly bare. Oldman is clearly enjoying himself, which beats the alternative; Banderas gets a nice, barbed monologue about the slippery slope from saving the world to saving yourself. I appreciated the info about all the state-tax-free businesses based in Delaware: “The director of this movie,” Oldman confides, “has five.” There’s nobody here you’re unhappy about spending time with (Jeffrey Wright! David Schwimmer! Cristela Alonzo!), and Soderbergh’s caustic wit gets sharper when it’s brightening the darkest corners. (When somebody mentions the Falun Gong, you might want to do the “watching a Netflix movie” thing and get real distracted for the next couple of minutes.) But every abrupt and too-brief cut back to Streep reminds you of how far off course we’ve amiably rambled.

Justice is eventually served, and then, of course, cruelly undercut—you’ll learn a thing or two, and also walk away with dozens of new political scandals to be royally pissed about. But as Ellen, your ostensible main character, Streep’s plight is abandoned, her agency denied, save for a brief moment in church when she gets to sass God, the original scammer. (“I hate to ask this, but I was just wondering when exactly the meek would be inheriting the earth? Will that be in my lifetime? Or my grandkids’?”) She also gets to wrap up the movie with a very fun fourth-wall-breaking stunt of her own, which reveals that The Laundromat was even more irreverent than you thought, but a bit more sanctimonious, too: Her last line is, “Reform of America’s broken campaign finance system cannot wait.” She makes it memorable; she makes it sing. Of course she does. But she shouldn’t have to work so hard, and for all its furious and painstakingly frivolous density, the film awkwardly built around her to the point of her exclusion really ought to have worked harder.