‘The Laundromat’ Review: A Meryl Streep Bait and Switch

For about 45 minutes, The Laundromat was a great movie. It was compelling as Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) fought to expose the crooks getting away with not paying the insurance money for which they were liable. It had the sense of fun of a caper. Then the film leaves Ellen Martin entirely and becomes about totally different people and loses all momentum.

Meryl Streep in The Laundromat
Meryl Streep in The Laundromat | Claudette Barius/Netflix

Meryl Streep drives ‘The Laundromat’

Ellen and her husband Joe (James Cromwell) are on a ferry to Niagara Falls that overturns and Joe drowns. The boat company wants their insurance to cover all the deaths that occurred, but they’ve been defrauded by a shell company that’s moved their policy around in the West Indies. Sounds good so far. 

This is a complicated scam and I’m probably getting some of it wrong, so screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh have some fun with the explanations. Jurgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) introduce sketches about how money and credit work. The Laundromat breaks the fourth wall liberally and indulges in Ellen’s revenge fantasies. 

Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas in The Laundromat
Gary Oldman (L) and Antonio Banderas (R) in The Laundromat | Claudette Barius/Netflix

This is not The Big Short though. Many of the sketches don’t land and don’t explain the convoluted finances any more clearly than the narrative scenes of the plot. But at least for 45 glorious minutes we have Meryl Streep to follow.

When ‘The Laundromat’ loses Meryl Streep is loses us

At a certain point, The Laundromat leaves Ellen’s story to follow Charles (Nonso Anozie), whom the film claims is an honest businessman. The film takes time to introduce Charles’s daughter Simone (Jessica Allain), wife Miranda (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and even Simone’s roommate Astrid (Miracle Washington.)

They have a lot of drama, but it takes a really long time to establish a very simple scenario involving the worth of bearer shares in companies. Maybe this segment would be fun on its own but not as a long diversion from the main character.

Then it takes another diversion to a story in China. Ellen pops up sporadically but there’s no closure to her story. Maybe that’s the true story. Maybe she never got closure for her husband’s death and the insurance fraud. The scam goes far beyond her. If there’s no closure, at least let Ellen finish the movie. By the time it ends we haven’t seen her for 45 minutes.

Double Meryl Streep only makes it worse

Perhaps Soderbergh’s idea was that if Ellen wasn’t in some parts of the story, Meryl Streep could play another role to tide viewers over. This is doubly problematic. For one, the second character is Elena, a Latina employee of the shell company. Not to say Meryl Streep isn’t convincing but that’s maybe not the most woke casting idea.

Meryl Streep in The Laundromat
Meryl Streep in The Laundromat | Claudette Barius/Netflix

Besides a few gimmicky scenes, Elena isn’t really in much of the movie either. Charles and the Chinese subplot still take up most of the second half of The Laundromat. So they cast Meryl Streep as a racially insensitive character and it doesn’t even give her that much more screen time.

Too late for preaching

As the fourth wall breaking continues, there are still some fun moments, like Mossack and Fonseca looking at the wrong camera. In the end, the characters break the fourth wall so drastically they blatantly preach the film’s message. I’d be on board if The Laundromat hadn’t lost me 45 minutes ago.

I agree with the film’s message. Companies should get busted for selling fraudulent insurance policies. The U.S. authorities should go after shell companies scamming Americans. But also, movies should finish their stories.