2019 has been quite the year for films contemplating the state of income inequality and wealth. From Hustlers to Parasite, the year in film has positioned capitalism as perhaps the most ubiquitous antagonist on the silver screen. Which leaves a strange opening for a movie like The Laundromat, Netflix’s Meryl-Streep-starring vehicle about some of the naughtiest words in the English language: insurance and tax evasion. Based on a true story, the film attempts to expose how the rich get away with (not actual) murder.
The film centers on Ellen Martin (Streep), a retired senior citizen whose seemingly idyllic life is interrupted by a family tragedy. However, in the aftermath, she soon discovers that the income she expected from her life insurance policy has been truncated, leading her down a path of discover what really goes on behind the scenes of everyone’s bank account. Meanwhile, director Steven Soderbergh employs a clever but hardly perfect method of exposition – using real-life lawyers Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) as not only characters in the film, but as 4th walk breaking narrators who spoon-feed the audience info on finance and government policies.
It is here where much of the film’s rhetoric comes into play. Our narrators lament that companies are incentivized to cheat the system due to a lax economic structure. In addition, those most likely to prevent such thievery (lawmakers) are the ones most encouraged to turn a blind eye due to the amount of corporate money that’s tied to political campaigns.
But none of this is new. Even as the film takes great effort to explain the apparatus that ties the corruption together, the conclusions Soderbergh comes to are neither fresh nor encouraging. The story itself is about average Joes getting beat down and taken advantage of, and even if some of the perpetrators get their comeuppance, nothing is done for those who have already been wronged. There is no bail out, just empty promises of “we’ll make sure we get the next crook!”
Instead of offering greater insight into modern economic uncertainty, The Laundromat simply relies on the talent of it’s cast to keep the festivities interesting. Streep is her usual illuminating self, replete with all her Streep-isms; including exasperated rants while maintaining inconsistent eye contact with the character she’s talking to, and infectious laughter. Banderas and Oldman are as charismatic as you’d expect, even as Oldman exhibits a tendency to yell his lines.
But the show is perhaps unexpectedly stolen by Nonso Anozie and Jessica Allain as a father-daughter duo in the middle of a family calamity. Their section of the film is the most scandalous and perhaps the most surprising (least of which being an unexpected Marcus Garvey reference!), while it reiterates the ways in which morals are compromised to leverage quality of life. Adding to the absurdity of it all, Allain’s character ‘Simone’ at one point, before going further their conversation, yells to her father “I want to talk to my lawyer!”
But once the dust settles on all of stories of deceit and neglect, there isn’t much to the film’s messaging to ponder. This is perhaps because the screenplay acknowledges that society is complicit in the wrongdoing, even if we like to think we’re opposed to it. At one point, the narrators reflect on the role average citizens play in income inequality, stating that “The world doesn’t want to be saved”, and “we want to be fair, but we want to win. We want to be righteous but we want to get ahead.”
This is painfully accurate as many will endorse a system that allows the rich to run up the score because that means that we too can maximize our own profits and hopefully run up the score ourselves some day. For most, this is just a pipe dream, but the allure is just as strong. And sadly, there isn’t much to The Laundromat to break the allure. Steven Soderbergh is one of the most versatile filmmakers we have working today, but his work here represents a misfire. Not because it isn’t smart, witty, or funny, but because it never gets angry. Instead, characters nonchalantly preach to the camera about what should be done, but it is neither compelling not convincing. This is a limp call to act, one that feels more like a suggestion than the desperate cry it should be. Where’s Howard Beale when you need him, was he bought too?