‘The Laundromat’ review: Soderbergh’s Netflix film not as clever as it purports to be

In "The Laundromat," Meryl Streep plays Ellen Martin -- a character who encounters major insurance problems after her husband (James Cromwell) dies in a boating accident and launches her own investigation of the shenanigans. Photo Credit: Claudette Barius/Netflix

Based on the book “Secrecy World” by Jake Bernstein, the movie adopts a lightly interwoven anthology format to tell a story of unrestrained greed.

In "The Laundromat," Meryl Streep plays Ellen Martin -- a character who encounters major insurance problems after her husband (James Cromwell) dies in a boating accident and launches her own investigation of the shenanigans.
In "The Laundromat," Meryl Streep plays Ellen Martin — a character who encounters major insurance problems after her husband (James Cromwell) dies in a boating accident and launches her own investigation of the shenanigans. Photo Credit: Epix/David Lee

‘The Laundromat’

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Starring Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone

Rated R

There are many better ways to understand the global economic system underpinning the Panama Papers, the leaked documents that outlined an extraordinary breadth of offshore financial corruption among the elite, than by having it explained to you in a movie by characters played by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas.

That is the basic issue besetting "The Laundromat," another filmmaking experiment from Steven Soderbergh, which attempts to serve as a treatise on the subject but does so through unrestrained didacticism. 

The impetus is commendable — maybe people would pay more attention to these issues if they’re explained to them by a beloved celebrity. But as a cinematic conceit, the tactic did not work in the overrated "The Big Short," and it feels like a half-measure in this movie, which opens in theaters on Sept. 27 before coming to Netflix on Oct. 18.

Scripted by Scott Z. Burns and based on the book "Secrecy World" by Jake Bernstein, the movie adopts a lightly interwoven anthology format to tell a story that revolves around the consequences of unrestrained greed.

Oldman and Banderas play Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, the movie’s versions of the real life partners in the Mossack Fonseca law firm at the center of the Panama Papers, who serve as our tuxedo-clad guides attempting to elucidate how we got from the days of cave men and bartering to an economic system today that allows for rampant manipulation and skyrocketing income inequality.

Their narration anchors chapters that are meant to illustrate the various characteristics that allow this system of moving money around undetected, through the stories of fictional characters such as Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who encounters major insurance problems after her husband (James Cromwell) dies in a boating accident and launches her own investigation of the shenanigans. 

Other characters are played by everyone from David Schwimmer to Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Will Forte and Nonso Anozie. The movie engulfs them in surreal tragicomedy, but it’s so preoccupied with being smart and clever that nothing it wants to say resonates.

There’s simply nothing to connect with from a human standpoint, and so the movie sinks or swims entirely on the basis of how cleverly it uses the people on screen as props to illustrate concepts that are ultimately much less complicated than, say, the collateralized debt obligations addressed by "The Big Short."

Soderbergh is not just a great filmmaker but an important one. He has made a career out of pushing the boundaries of the form, both in terms of the technical apparatus and storytelling structures, but he has one big, consistent weakness: a propensity to make movies that are a lot less clever than they think they are. 

This one goes through a lot of fourth wall-breaking trouble, rushing between storylines and settings, all to kinda, sorta illustrate how offshore banking works and why the global financial system leaves so many people behind. It manages to muddle simple concepts in the process by being too cute with them and to meander when it should entertain, though a couple storylines have an absurdist flair to them when taken in miniature.

The bottom line, though, is that you won’t leave the movie any more knowledgeable about the subject than you were upon entering it, and you certainly don’t need "The Laundromat" to be possessed by the rousing desire to fight back against this system.

Robert Levin