Review: 'The Laundromat' a witty look at web of global finance

Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas shine a light on worldwide system of tax schemes in Steven Soderbergh's smart, complex comic-drama

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Like the twisty, knotty, complicated-by-design world it follows, "The Laundromat" tells a complex story that isn't always easy to follow. 

But that's the point, and director Steven Soderbergh's darkly comic look at shady underground business dealings, the offshore financing playgrounds of the super wealthy, and the ways the system is designed to squeeze the little guys is well worth the investment.

Meryl Streep in "The Laundromat."

Meryl Streep is Ellen Martin, a member of a travel group from Trenton, MI. whose vacation to Lake George, NY ends in disaster when her tour boat sinks, leaving 21 dead. (The story is based on a real life 2005 incident.)   

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Ellen's insurance settlement from her husband's death leads her down a rabbit hole of tax schemes, shell companies and the house of cards upon which the world's financial system is built. The story was uncovered in the Panama Papers, a 2015 series of leaked documents which exposed the financial dealings of more than 200,00 companies that routinely avoid tax laws by gaming the system using offshore accounts.  

Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas ham it up as the film's tuxedo-clad narrators-slash-hosts, walking viewers through the story and laying out the maxims of the moneyed elite. Their first lesson, and the film's underlying message: "The meek are screwed." (Another great line that stands out: "the world is just men hiding behind piles of paper.") 

The screenplay by Scott Z. Burns winds through multiple loosely connected storylines, including a wealthy father's (Nonso Anozie) birthday party for his daughter and a businessman (Matthias Schoenaerts) who winds up in a Chinese organ-harvesting scheme. 

Soderbergh keeps the heavy themes light and even playful, and Streep rides the film's sardonic wave in a double role that sees her donning a garish disguise as a Panamanian office worker. When she addresses the camera in a fourth-wall breaking monologue as Meryl Streep, it becomes the film's call to action. Rise up, it says, because we're the ones being taken to the cleaners. 

'The Laundromat'


Rated R: for language, some sexual content and disturbing images

Running time: 96 minutes

On Netflix