The Laundromat, based on real events, is about a woman named Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), whose wedding anniversary trip with her husband results in her entering the world of shell corporations, which are connected to a shady law firm in Panama. Despite boasting a wonderful ensemble cast and hilarious dialogue, The Laundromat is far too blunt in its approach to the subject matter.
The Laundromat is clever in its structure, has witty dialogue, and is funny as hell. Between the script and the actor’s delivery of the dialogue, this film had me in stiches. Director Stephen Soderbergh and his casting director has assembled a talented group of actors, with even small bit roles being carefully casted with well-known comedic actors. Gary Oldman and Antonio Bendares portray the two men who started the whole fraudulent system of shell companies that plagues Ellen. Oldman and Bendares’ characters act as The Laundromat’s narrators, explaining to the audience the legalities behind shell companies, as well as their own backstory. While the duo’s performances are impeccable, the actors’ role in the film is its core flaw, The Laundromat lacks any of the subtlety necessary to make a good movie.
The Laundromat is incredibly unsubtle, especially when it becomes more interested in the details of how corrupt legal institutions are than the characters it establishes in the first act. It is those exposition loaded moments, and some heavy-handed narration, that distracts the viewer from the entertaining performances and witty banter that makes parts of the film so enjoyable.
I’d argue that it is The Laundromat’s ending where the blunt nature of the film becomes particularly noticeable, as the writers become more interested in educating the audience on the horrors on incidents like those depicted in the film, rather than telling an actual story. The final scene is so incredibly on the nose that it made me physically cringe in during the screening and is the best piece of evidence for why The Laundromat does not work as well as it should. The film also sidelines Ellen Martin, the Point of View character that is so crucial to the first half of the film.
The film jumps around quite a bit as it explains the intricacies of shell companies, featuring a host of characters who were screwed or profited due to institutional corruption. Meryl Streep’s character, Ellen Martin, is The Laundromat’s main point-of-view character. Part of my initial enjoyment of the film was Streep’s performance and how her character reflected the individuals affected by the law firm’s actions.
Watching her struggle to make sense of the intricate world of shell companies in the face of tragedy, acting as a stand-in for the real-world victims, really grabbed my attention. Ellen Martin also acts as the film’s through line, helping tie all the different story threads together. That is, until the film forgets about Ellen Martin in favor of spouting facts about how the real-world events ended. At that point I began to lose interest, as the character I became invested in disappeared. What replaced Ellen Martin, a series of factoids and some grandstanding, was not nearly as compelling as a woman trying to make sense of the unseen and very illegal elements that exist in the business world.
The editing in the film is largely well done, with scene transitions and graphics that help bring the different plot elements together in as seamless a way as possible. The scene transitions are a mix of brilliant and terrible. Most of the time, those transitions are clever and seamless, however they can also be abrupt and jarring.
The Laundromat was made with the best of intentions, both as a warning and as a break from normal film conventions. In the end, the message over-powers the actual narrative, which ultimately harms the The Laundromat – a film that would work better as a comedic documentary than a fictional retelling. Still, it’s a pretty funny movie.