“The Laundromat” is a breezy comedy about greed, fraud and corruption — or at least it tries to be.
Directed by former Baton Rouge resident Steven Soderbergh and based on Jake Bernstein's book "Secrecy World," “The Laundromat" is a bumpy blend of comedy and tragedy. The film has plenty of style and some very funny scenes and features an all-star cast led by Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman. But this look at how the super-rich evade taxes dances around its target, never hitting the bull's-eye.
Streep plays a blindsided victim of a sham insurance company, opposite Oldman and Antonio Banderas as two money-laundering law partners. Blithely breaking the third wall, Oldman and Banderas look into Soderbergh’s camera, martinis in hand. Luxuriously wardrobed and sometimes lounging on the beach, the attorneys act as our guiltless guides to the shifty world of tax avoidance.
The often nonchalant tone Soderbergh sets undermines the seriousness of the film’s subject. As Ellen Martin, a Midwestern woman whose husband (James Cromwell) dies in a freak accident, Streep occasionally transcends the screwball lightheartedness. At times acting only with her eyes and not a word of dialogue, she can fully communicate her character’s grief and distress. But in the typically flippant “The Laundromat,” there’s little time for sincerity.
Like Soderbergh’s earlier Netflix film, “High Flying Bird,” “The Laundromat” is an "Us against the Big, Greedy System" story. For Ellen, the system is powerfully, shamelessly and unaccountably unfair. But Ellen at least tries to learn more about the wrong done to her.
Organized into chapters labeled “Secrets,” “The Laundromat” opens with “Secret 1: The Meek are the Screwed.” The film follows the money to Panama, where attorneys Jürgen Mossack (Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Banderas) base their money-laundering business. Living the high life afforded them by their tax evasion-enabling work, they’re oblivious to the consequences of their clients’ greed.
The plot line involving Streep’s Ellen begins with a 40th wedding anniversary trip to scenic Lake George, New York. Too bad that her husband (James Cromwell) and 20 other retirement-age folks drown in the lake when their boat capsizes. The boat’s operator, Captain Perry (Robert Patrick), and his business partner (David Schwimmer) subsequently discover they bought insurance from an unlicensed, fake company in Houston.
The insurance calamity segues to “Secret 2: It’s Just Shells.” In this segment of the episodic “The Laundromat,” the curious Ellen encounters obscenely wealthy Russians and an offshore company that exists solely as a post office box. Turning amateur sleuth, she tracks shell company enabler Malchus Irvin Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright) to the West Indies. Boncamper simply tells Ellen that he doesn’t know anyone named Boncamper.
The film’s comedy kicks in most of all when “The Laundromat” digs into the personal and family business of Boncamper and the super-rich Charles (Nonso Anozie). The complications and misunderstandings that arise from Charles’ indiscretions, shall we say, are deliciously farcical. But other than Charles’ resplendent wealth and connection to the Mossack Fonseca law firm in Panama, his episode in the film is a stand-alone comedy sketch.
Later in “The Laundromat,” events turn deadly serious during a sequence featuring Matthias Schoenaerts as Maywood, an Englishman conducting dirty business in China. The Maywood episode, like Charles’ sexual misadventures, plays like a scene from a separate movie that’s been mistakenly edited into “The Laundromat.”
Now screening on Netflix following a limited run in theaters, “The Laundromat” is diverting but rarely more than that. Soderbergh’s cinematic prowess reveals itself in multiple segments, but these well-executed pieces don’t coalesce into a coherent whole. And the filmmakers’ choice to have major characters address the audience directly, telling rather than showing, doesn’t engage viewers so much as push them out of the story.
NOW PLAYING: On Netflix
MPAA RATING: Rated R for language, some sexual content and disturbing images.
EXCELLENT (****), GOOD (***), FAIR (**), POOR (*)