Review: THE LAUNDROMAT – The Promise of Story



DUSTIN (30, bearded, your reviewer) sits at his computer desk. Suddenly, he notices THE CAMERA and looks into it, breaking the fourth wall. He is now able to address the audience directly and, by doing so, has mastered the tier of wit showcased in the new Steven Soderbergh film THE LAUNDROMAT.

Dustin swivels his chair toward the audience to face them fully because it’s not enough that he address the audience, he needs to move slightly because this isn’t radio—it’s a goddamn talkie for Netflix.

Oh, hello! Who am I, you ask? Just some guy on the internet. And who are you? I have no idea because this relationship doesn’t work that way. But I’m going to take a wild stab at it: your name is Steven Tucker and you live in Akron, Ohio. Bet you’re pretty freaked out now, aren’t you, Steven?

Dustin rises from the chair. We follow him as he strolls to his cramped galley kitchen. He maintains focus with the audience at all times.

If you’re already tired of this shtick, then too bad. If I can sit through ninety minutes of it, then you can suffer through a few hundred words.

He begins to make tea in the kitchen because he needs to be doing something, even if it’s entirely menial and not related to the plot whatsoever.

If Adam McKay ever undergoes severe doubts about his creative process, then I hope he watched THE LAUNDROMAT—a film that is unmistakably written by somebody who watched THE BIG SHORT and took one thing away from it: enigmatic characters who break the fourth wall as a means to humorously explain complex financial disasters is a one-way ticket to an Oscar. So, let’s nab two renowned actors, dress them in garish suits, maybe give one a ridiculous accent because silly voices are funny, and have them walk around green-screen slathered sets for half of an entire film. But even though Oldman and Banderas are entertaining to watch in their shiny suits, I believe we’re only engaged with them for so long. It’s the length of time it takes before we stop believing the promise of a compelling story. And we start of nicely: Streep is given a dull but easy character—one she can make endearing with a few simple glances and small hitches in her voice—and she’s put in a real, human predicament. The film focuses on her first. She is the heart of the story (and I use the term “story” loosely). We care, even if it’s only a little, about her situation. She is the catalyst for the story: her tragedy unfolds the mammoth shell company scam that the film wants to tell us about. But she is ditched around halfway through the film. We’re treated to David Schwimmer at a pub table for a couple scenes. A lengthy scene involving prominent Chinese corruption. A two-timing businessman caught in the crosshairs. I get it: the film wants to portray two things. One, that this was a complicated maze of financial bureaucracy and laundered money, but we lose Streep—we lose the heart—far too fast. The glue, in fact, is Oldman and Banderas. We see them more often than anyone else and their only job is to meander, both physically and verbally, in an attempt to make sense of everything. Which is weird, isn’t it? Why are the guilty lawyers explaining this to us? I know it’s because Streep’s character is too meek and we don’t settle on anyone else long enough for them to matter. I know it’s because they’re quirky and they’re the best bet to hold our attention. Shh, everybody shh! Gary Oldman is back on the TV and talking!

Dustin pours the tea.

Cup in hand, he saunters through the living room and out onto the deck. We can see how cold it is outside because we can see Dustin’s breath when he exhales, but it is obviously computer-generated because it’s not actually cold out and filmmakers keep trying to convince us that this looks good.

The film is twisty, to say the least. It makes some questionable choices. Without spoiling anything, there is a baffling reason why Streep’s story is essentially cut out of the rest of the film. It’s a startling reveal in the worst sense: startling as in, “Oh Jesus, no, what the hell are you people doing this for?”

Dustin pushes down the fake railing of the balcony and walks out into midair. Because this is all fake. This has all been filmed in a sound stage with green screen. The computer-generated overlay disappears and now Dustin stands his living room before a large green screen because why not. Now he leaves the green screen and enters his kitchen—his real kitchen—because he thinks that’s a pretty good gag.

So, Streep’s character is abandoned in favor of, well, Streep herself. That’s not a joke. I know I said I didn’t want to spoil anything, but is this a spoiler? Can you spoil a lecture? Streep disrobes from her character’s attire, which doesn’t mean much because it’s been around thirty minutes since we last saw her prior. She removes her wig, her makeup, etc. She becomes the woman we see on red carpets several times a year. She becomes Meryl Streep in order to convey to us the gravity of the situation, the fact that this problem was never solved but just swept away for a couple months, and that we need to demand better of every link in the chain of how our world functions. It’s not a badly written speech. The only problem is it makes it feel like a Golden Globe award speech rather than a poignant, powerful climax for a film. For a story.

Dustin removes his shirt, revealing his doughy torso.

Sorry, I feel like I should be doing something dramatic to emphasize my point. Also, I’m tired of walking. But anyway, you know what THE LAUNDROMAT needed? Another twenty-five minutes dedicated to genuine storytelling. I haven’t seen such a brazen cop-out like Streep becoming herself in a long time. Maybe ever. And the moment is totally fumbled because of it. Had the film continued to care about its catalyst, had followed her character through to a powerful ending, it would’ve sunk its claws into us far deeper. Its message would’ve resonated far further. And this isn’t revelatory stuff. We all know stories with something to say about our world get it done better when it, you know, actually tells a story. Because, let me tell ya, only a handful of people are interested in signing up for Business 103A: Tax Haven and Shell Corporations—but everybody is interested in a good story.

Dustin holds his cup of tea against his hairy chest and looks off in pensive thought.

None of this makes THE LAUNDROMAT bad, really. It’s not bad. It’s just unremarkable. It broke its promise to tell a story, and I’m more mystified by that than I am angered. It’s a shame. It’s wasted opportunities all around. Maybe I’ll go watch THE BIG SHORT again as a palette cleanser.


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