I learned something at the Venice Film Festival today; just because your film has Meryl Streep in it, doesn’t automatically mean this is an assurance of high quality. GASP! I know – I’m as shocked as you are. The thought of Meryl being associated with something inferior to her station is a notion I care not to entertain.
But the disappointment of Steven Soderbergh’s latest dark comedy The Laundromat’ doesn’t fall on the shoulders of the three time Oscar-wining actress. Quite the contrary – she’s as reliable as ever. But my goodness, The Laundromat is such a disjointed, uneven watch and not even Meryl Streep can save it.
Based on the book of the same name by Jake Bernstein and adapted by screenwriter Scott Z Burns, The Laundromat details the events of the 2016 Panama Papers Scandal – hardly a titillating subject to turn into riveting entertainment. But with the film boasting a plethora of A-List talent and directed by the man that gave us Ocean’s 11 and Erin Brockovich, I was on-board for whatever Soderbergh had to offer.
Channeling a similar energy to the work of Adam McKay, Soderbergh approaches the topic of offshore tax-avoidance schemes, in the same way that McKay did for the financial crisis with The Big Short. Soderbergh adds some self-aware razzle-dazzle and breaks the dull stuff into eccentric digestible nuggets.
All the legal mumbo jumbo and seemingly endless exposition is given to us by the unreliable narrators of the film – the partners of the disgraced Panamanian law firm Mossack and Fonseca played by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas.
It’s undeniably quirky and both Oldman and Banderas give it their all (ridiculous accents included) but lightening very rarely strikes twice and The Laundromat possess neither the swag or finesse of The Big Short. The primary reason for The Laundromat feeling so wonky is that it feels more like a crash course in offshore shell companies than it does a film. There is barely a plot to follow. The closest we get to a narrative through-line is with Meryl Streep’s widowed character Ellen Martin.
Whilst onboard a Shoreline Cruise voyage on Lake George with her husband Joe (James Cromwell), a freak rogue wave causes their boat to capsize – killing 21 people onboard including Joe. After Joe’s funeral, Ellen tries claiming a financial settlement for Joe’s death but soon finds the company responsible for insuring the cruise is nothing more than a shell company. A shell company (which this film vigorously explains in great detail) is essentially a company that only exists in writing. There are no offices, no employees and because the company is an empty vessel occupying a P.O box in the Caribbean, nobody is held accountable for the accident.
Streep manages to find a safe middle ground of making Ellen eccentric enough to fit in with the zany tone of the film, whist grounding her enough in reality to make her a plucky and sympathetic protagonist. But writer Scott Z Burns has a tendency to veer off onto less interesting tangents for far too long – making the audience feel detached from the emotional anchor of the film (Ellen).
They’re several subplots which overstay their welcome, such as a sequence between a disgruntled father (Nonso Anozie) whose daughter (Jessica Allain) learns of his affair with her roommate (Miracle Washington). As well as an obtuse scene involving greed, the harvesting of human organs and Matthias Schoenaerts playing another smarmy detestable type.
These scenes served very little function or purpose and only deflated the emotional investment were supposed to have with Ellen. That’s not to say there isn’t fun to be had with The Laundromat. Some of the more absurd moments like the death of the office-patsy Mia are certainly chuckle-inducing.
The Laundromat is also a very self-aware and likes to acknowledge that at the of the day, this is a film. The meta humour goes as far as calling out Soderbergh himself; ‘The director of this movie has five of them” received one of the most audible reactions at the Venice screening. The film is also bookended by two staggeringly long tracking shots which are impressively done however it’s merely a flashy way for Soderbergh to unload heavy amounts of exposition which this film feels overstuffed with.
To summarise The Laundromat has flashes of brilliance and has plenty of spirit to spare. However, due to the episodic nature of it’s chapters and the fact Burns’ script dilly-dallies around with segments that provide very little functionality, The Laundromat feels rather stilted overall. The marketing likes to raw attention to its star-studded cast but the vast majority of them are in thankless here-for-the-paycheque roles. It really is just an A-list lemon.
2/5 Stars ★★☆☆☆
THE LAUNDROMAT premiered at VENICE & is out on NETFLIX on 18TH OCTOBER
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Read our other film review for The Laundromat here: https://bit.ly/2kGXuDf