By John H. Foote
Rarely has either Steven Soderbergh or the extraordinary Meryl Streep made such a weak, empty film as this.
Soderbergh emerged as the boy wonder of 1989, his film sex, lies and videotape earning him raves and the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize. But the years in between were mighty lean, and it was not until 1998 that he scored a major critical hit again, his stylish thriller Out of Sight, the first film to showcase the genuine star power of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. In The Limey (1999) Soderbergh displayed his gifts for lean, tough filmmaking in creating a superb film about a dangerously, vengeful father portrayed with coiled fury by Terence Stamp. The following later he was nominated for Best Director twice in the same year for Traffic (2000), a superb drug thriller, and Erin Brockovich (2000), a solid biography of a young woman who blew the whistle on some deadly factories.
Julia Roberts famously won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Erin Brockovich, while Traffic won Oscars for Best Director for Soderbergh, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor, Benecio Del Toro’s haunted, though relentless cop. Through the 2000’s he has busied himself with the silly Ocean’s 11 franchise, really nothing of great importance. At one point he announced his retirement!
Fortunately for us instead of retiring he forged ahead to make the criminally underrated Che (2007), a five-hour epic about Che Guevara shot on digital featuring a stunning performance from Del Toro as the rebel. Next was The Informant! (2009) a breezy expose featuring a brilliant Matt Damon performance portraying a man to whom the truth is an illusion. Best of all, for HBO Soderbergh directed Behind the Candelabra (2013) a simply magnificent study of Liberace, portrayed superbly by Michael Douglas in the finest and most courageous performance of his career. Equally great in the film was Matt Damon as one of Liberace’s many lovers, cast aside when the piano player was finished with him. Had this film opened in theatres, there is no doubt in my mind Douglas would have won the Academy Award.
Netflix financed his new film, The Laundromat, which is a meandering study of corruption, fraud and greed with a great cast given very little to do. Informative, but boring, dull. Got insomnia? Here is your cure.
When a tragic pleasure cruise boat sinks on a lake, her husband is drowned, Ellen (Streep) goes through the motions of insurance money and being compensated for the loss of her husband by the insurance company of the boating company. Ellen is about to be educated on how big insurance scams and gets out of paying, as are we. Though it is shocking how callous big business can be, the film has little bite to it.
Along the way several very fine actors pop up in roles that require them to do very little. Yes, that is Sharon Stone as the real estate woman in Vegas, yes, The Big Bang Theory’s Melissa Rauch pops up as Streeps’ daughter, and another TV star, Friends alumnae David Schwimmer, does a decent job as the reeling owner of the cruise boat that has sunk, leaving him vulnerable financially. The gifted Jeffrey Wright in a fright wig is cast as a double-dealing insurance front with two families, and Gary Oldman and the eternally glowering Antonio Banderas are kind of an informative Greek chorus, talking directly to us, shattering the fourth wall, explaining the details of how an insurance company gets away with scamming its customers.
Streep has rarely had so little to do in a film, and though we see the effort, it does not work. She looks grief stricken, she is relentless in her pursuit of answers, but what drives her? Why is she pushing for reasons? Her husband is gone, does it matter? Will money bring him back? Never have I been bored or uninterested in a Streep performance, but I was here.
Oldman has great fun as the crooked German lawyer, and Banderas is at least watchable as his partner, both obscenely rich, and crooked.
Eventually the police move in and bust the company, bringing to light The Panama Papers scandal which might have given Ellen justice, but did nothing to restore her husband to her.
A bouncy sixties score accompanies the narrative, an inspired choice but leading to the questions, is the film a satire, a black comedy, a thriller…exactly what kind of movie did Soderbergh make? The Laundromat could have been a savage indictment railing against insurance companies and how they do not care for their policy holders, but instead, it is nothing of the kind.
What was Soderbergh trying to say?
I wonder if he knows himself.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.