You can be forgiven for seeing Meryl Streep in her jaunty hat and thinking The Laundromat was some quiet drama about a dementia-addled empty nester trying to reconnect with her estranged son. Netflix seems to have too many titles to market these days, and the public’s dominant image of The Laundromat, somewhat inaccurately, has been Meryl Streep in a yellow hat.
The film, which released over the weekend, is actually director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’ Big Short-esque adaptation of Secrecy World, Jake Bernstein’s book about the Panama Papers, a massive exposé revealing the money laundering practices of the super rich. (Ah, the laundromat, now I get it).
Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas play Mossack and Fonseca, the titular heads of Mossack-Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm that, per the Panama Papers, helped unscrupulous and/or brazenly corrupt government officials and rich people all over the world hide their money in opaque shell companies incorporated in offshore havens with loose tax laws and tight privacy laws. Oldman and Banderas mostly talk directly to the camera, attempting to explain complicated concepts like shell corporations, LLCs, bearer share companies, and the like. Meryl Streep, meanwhile, plays Ellen Martin, a retiree who finds herself drawn into the world of shady finance after her husband drowns on a sightseeing trip and she has to try to wrestle a settlement check out of the nest of companies who are supposed to be insuring the cruise line they were on.
Watching Soderbergh go Big Short on elite financial malfeasance would’ve ranked high on my list of things I wanted to see. But almost from the beginning, there are signs Soderbergh and Burns are having trouble wrestling this into the shape of a traditional feature. In one of the first scenes, when Oldman and Banderas explain the very concept of money, starting from the caveman days, it’s a little like that scene in Adaptation when the Charlie Kaufman character has a manic moment of false eureka, thinking he should open his orchid story with time-lapse footage showing a timeline of all existence starting with a big bang. Oops, you’ve zoomed out too far!
Shell companies and money laundering are complex by design, much like collateralized debt and credit default swaps were in The Big Short. In The Laundromat, Soderbergh uses many of the same tricks McKay did to try to explain them — direct address, infographics, breezy tone. But while it copies The Big Short’s expository tricks, The Laundromat misses something more important: Perspective. Heroes. Redemption.
The reason The Big Short works so well (the book more so than the movie) is that it’s the story of a collapsing paradigm told from the perspective of people who needed it to collapse for their personal redemption. Thus turning a tragedy into a hero’s journey.
In The Laundromat, we have comic book villain narrators (Mossack and Fonseca), a set of disparate villains (a philandering African government official played by Nonso Anozie, a philandering Caribbean accountant played by Jeffrey Wright, Rosalind Chao as the murderous wife of a Chinese official) and a victim, Meryl Streep’s Ellen Martin, through whom we experience the human toll of these seemingly impersonal financial crimes. First, she can’t get her settlement, and then she has her dream condo — overlooking the corner where she met her late husband — bought out from under her, thanks to an all-cash offer from a Russian shell company (in which Sharon Stone has a brief but memorable turn as a Las Vegas realtor).
There’s also another character played by Streep in bad makeup and facial prosthetics (are we not supposed to know it’s her?), whose narrative function would be somewhat spoiler-y to identify, but as an artistic choice is downright disastrous. In fact, this character and The Laundromat‘s final scene see Streep approaching what I can only describe as Jared Leto-esque levels of cringe-inducing actorliness. Also, that outfit… is that your idea of a Panamanian?
Whereas Michael Lewis found his heroes in The Big Short, the heroes of the Panama Papers haven’t quite shaken out, and there’s certainly no redemptive arc (it would’ve been nice to see some of the journalists at ICIJ who broke the story). The villains are clearer, and there are times when Soderbergh does a characteristically vivid job depicting them. In the vignette with the wife of the Chinese official (which also involves a cameo by the always brilliant Matthias Schoenaerts) there’s retina-removal sequence during which you can sense the same impish glee in hyperrealistic depictions of macabre medical procedures that brought us the smash-cut-to-Gwyneth-Paltrow’s-autopsy sequence in Contagion. The drowning sequence is brilliantly shot and hard to forget.
As a whole though, The Laundromat‘s villains remain largely disconnected — a series of vignettes about wildly different wealthy people which don’t entirely land. They seem like rich jerks, sure, but while shadowy Russians were buying Meryl Streep’s dream home, our current treasury secretary was getting taxpayer money to foreclose on widows so that he could afford $30 million mansions all over the world. Depicting Mossack-Fonseca clients as mere philanderers seems incredibly generous. The Laundromat doesn’t do a good enough job tying threads together.
This is a failure of art, and The Laundromat‘s embarrassing Mr. Smith Goes To Washington ending stands out as one of the great artistic failures of Soderbergh’s career, up there with Julia Roberts posing as Julia Roberts in Ocean’s 12 (especially disappointing after his virtuosic directing in High Flying Bird, from earlier this year).
That said, it’s a relatable failure of art.
There’s a point in Tupac’s “Hit ‘Em Up” where he works himself into a such a fury that he drops the pretense of it even being song and sort of just starts naming all the people that he wants to kill. There’s a tradition of that kind of fourth-wall-breaking, going back to Reefer Madness and beyond, where the creator gets so caught up in the urgency of their message that they dispense with the rules of their medium and try to shake the viewer by the shoulders.
That seems to be happening more and more these days, creators recognizing what feels like the futility of art in combatting the depth and faceless breadth of authoritarianism in its modern corporate incarnation. The sense that we’ve gone so far beyond the pale that the normal rules are inadequate is so palpable that even a dork like Beto O’Rourke has tried to capitalize on it by saying “fuck” in his stump speeches.
It’s understandable that Soderbergh would want to tell this story. Nationless kleptocrats are the defining issue of this modern Gilded Age. It’s equally understandable that Soderbergh would inevitably get frustrated with the artistic challenges of trying to depict this scale of villainy. It’s not really a normal story. Who are the heroes of the Panama Papers? How do you give this story a compelling arc?
I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I can mostly say “this ain’t it, chief” to The Laundromat and certainly to its theatrical ending (with shades of SNL singing “Hallelujah”). Oliver Bullough’s Moneyland, which came out a year after Secrecy World, found many of the effective metaphors The Laundromat seems to be searching for. Maybe Netflix can toss Soderbergh a redo adapting that one. Hopefully, he leaves Meryl’s fake nose and butt pads at home this time.