When my mom taught me to do laundry many moons ago, she showed me the importance of separating your darks from your whites and the delicates from the heavier clothes. If you don’t, the colours might run and clothes could emerge misshapen from the wash. Steven Soderbergh, however, wasn’t paying attention when his mom taught him to use the washing machine. His new film The Laundromat is a whackadoodle mix of lights and darks chucked in with delicates and heavy-duty material. But the mélange comes out of washer much better than a freshman student’s first load. The dizzying madcap whirl with The Laundromat gives audiences the rinse and the spin they need.
Comparisons to Adam McKay’s Oscar winner The Big Short are inevitable but also warranted. Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns’ zany and self-reflexive film skewers the lunacy of the financial world by blurring the drama of real life with the everyday farce in which we live in blissful ignorance. The film adapts Jake Bernstein’s book Secrecy World about Panama Papers scandal that rocked the world and toppled empires when journalists exposed a convoluted international network of tax evasion and offshore, off-the-grid accounts.
The Laundromat doesn’t aim to be a comprehensive account of the incomprehensible world of global finance. Audiences looking for more of a lesson might want to check out Alex Winter’s documentary The Panama Papers for a take that’s heavier on the information. Burns’ script gives audiences the gist of the scandal. Instead, he and Soderbergh have fun with the frustrating impenetrability of offshore finance.
There is no Margot Robbie in the bathtub, but The Laundromat does have a bubbly Meryl Streep in one of her more adventurous comedic outings. Streep stars as Ellen Martin, a soft-spoken retiree who loses her husband (James Cromwell) in a tragic boating accident that claims the lives of 20 people. Ellen, bitter and angry to hold someone accountable for the loss, goes after the shady life insurance company that dodges her claim. Paper trails and phone calls lead her to sketchy “insurance companies” (re: post office boxes) in the Caribbean and to picturesque condominiums gobbled up by Russian investors. Everyday people like Ellen have everything to lose when they have no who’s holding the money they think is as safe and sound as a penny in a piggybank.
The Laundromat breaks the fourth wall by having playboy billionaires Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) narrate the proceedings. These two tycoons, based on real figures at the centre of the Panama Papers scandal, comment upon the financial world like a Greek Chorus of bath-time Margot Robbies. Sipping cocktails in their crisp linen suits and swanky tuxedos, Mossack and Fonesca boast about the intricacies of the financial system that enables a powerful few to profit from the misery of others. Oldman and Banderas are a fun tag-time on bon vivants as their playboys gleefully and smugly address the audience directly, having a laugh at Ellen’s despair as their loose lips explain the secrets of their trade.
Soderbergh draws from the grab bag of hats whirling around in his laundry machine, and offers one of his more adventurous directorial outings with The Laundromat. This is one of those movies where one either goes with it or one doesn’t, but audiences who do are in for a ride.
Perhaps closest to Soderbergh’s The Informant! with its dark satire, the film changes gears quickly and abruptly as Ellen’s investigation goes through fits and starts. She and the accompanying playboy chorus pause for several interludes to imagine the machinery of the money laundering system. One extended digression humorously goes inside the home of a wealthy family where a philandering father (Nonso Anozie) bribes his daughter (Jessica Allain) with company shares for her silence. The farcical vignette illustrates how virtually any idiot can hold the power and money in such a sketchy operation—and how quickly money can disappear without one noticing and ruin families in the process
Another vignette features a leap of imaginative identification when Ellen cold calls an office in Panama to learn just who exactly is signing the documents on her life insurance account. With a quick cut, the Streep transforms from the dowdy Ellen to a frumpy Panamanian secretary who gets a plum promotion in the operation. Streep humorously disappears under a wig, make-up, Spanish accent, and padded posterior to play Ellen in secret agent mode as she learns about the money-laundering scheme. The ruse doesn’t aim to pass Streep off as a Panamanian, but rather to draw out the absurdity of this real world financial quagmire by inserting Ellen within it.
The film features a signature high-wire act from Streep as she uses her different guises to draw out the humour and horror of this unregulated financial world. The film ends with Streep breaking the fourth wall and using the power of the direct address that Oldman and Banderas set up for her. As the set breaks down and the actor sheds layers of make-up and costuming, exchanging her Panamanian accent for Ellen’s New England one, and then stepping out of Ellen’s skin altogether to transform into Meryl Streep.
There’s a gravity to the monologue as Streep recites the manifesto published by Panama Papers whistleblower John Doe and the actress speaks with fire in her belly, ending this amazing long-take with a passionate plea for America to reclaim itself as the land of truth and justice. It’s an amazing feat of acting that shows the range of Streep skills, moving from uber-theatricality to fiery naturalism, as she ends the film with the punch it needs. Leave it to Meryl to iron out any wrinkles.
The Laundromat launches on Netflix Sept. 27
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