In Steven Soderbergh’s ‘The Laundromat,’ Meryl Streep Plays a Panamanian Woman & It Makes No Sense

Lead Photo: Meryl Streep as Ellen Martin in 'The Laundromat.' Courtesy of TIFF
Meryl Streep as Ellen Martin in 'The Laundromat.' Courtesy of TIFF
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Meryl Streep has made a career out of nailing accents from all around the globe. She’s played a Polish mother facing an unspeakable choice, an equally celebrated and reviled British Prime Minister, a French lieutenant’s woman, an Australian woman who swore a dingo ate her baby, a kooky Eastern European cousin of Mary Poppins and she’s even donned heavy prosthetic makeup to embody a Rabbi in the Emmy-winning miniseries Angels in America. Which is why it’s not so surprising to see the Oscar winner try yet another accent on in Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat. (And yes, that means there are spoilers up ahead.) In the film, we first meet Streep’s Ellen Martin as she sees a holiday with her husband turn to tragedy. When the loss of her husband leads her down a rabbit hole of fraudulent insurance claims and questionable shell companies, she finds herself in the maelstrom of the dealings that were revealed in the Panama Papers of 2016. Soderbergh’s zippy if belabored explainer of those shady practices which allowed the wealthy to evade taxes (and criminals to launder their money) owes its structure to The Big Short. Antonio Banderas, looking dashing, and Gary Oldman, in a German accent, play narrators to what’s ostensibly a mini-history/econ lesson.

But back to Meryl’s accent work, which doesn’t come in the character of Ellen. No, we later get to meet a Panamanian secretary who is unexpectedly promoted so that she can serve as the CEO of thousands of shell companies, now all of them in need of her signature. With her wide hips, her oversized glasses, her long nails, her large nose and dark locks, you’d at first wouldn’t recognize that it’s the Mamma Mia! star. She hasn’t quite darkened her skin, but the tinted glasses and the feathered hair in her face do a lot to obscure that fact. (There are no pictures of this character available.) After all, her thick accented English (Vanity Fair compared it to Hank Azaria’s laughable Guatemalan-in-name-only accent in The Birdcage) does a lot of the work of making the character not look too out of place in the scenes at the Panama law firm at the heart of the movie. Indeed, given that this globe-trotting country has a handful of Latino and Latin American characters sprinkled throughout (including a fine dramatic turn from Cristela Alonzo as a government agent), it’s harder to make the argument that this is taking away a role from a Latina, or that the film makes no room for them.

For much of the film you may not know it’s Streep, but Soderbergh reveals said magic trick in a final scene that makes the illusion obvious. He wants you to leave the theater knowing Streep was donning an accent and a wig. Both as this secretary, but also, as Ellen. The movie ends with the actress taking off both wigs one after the other in one long take, doing away with each accent in turn, and delivering a monologue to us in her regular voice. It feels like a theatrical monologue, making both characters feel equally performative.

In this The Laundromat doesn’t shy away from admitting it has Streep playing a Latina. But in making it so obvious at the end, and having it become a metaphor for how the system is rigged in favor of the rich, the privileged, the wealthy (yes, including celebrities like Meryl and directors like Soderbergh), the film almost begs you to nitpick and be outraged at this small bit part of brownface. But it also weaponizes it to deliver a final monologue that’s all about seeing the bigger picture. There’s a sense that Soderbergh wants us to be in on the joke (the kind where, because he’s self-aware about it means there’s little to criticize about it). But it’s all so muddled and the movie so flippant at times that it’s hard to let it go, especially when this is such a cartoonish character to begin with. There may be a point, but one wonders whether that adds up to anything at all in the end. It just feels so tone-deaf and tired and so unseemly. Even worse, so unnecessary.

The Laundromat screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.