It appears that, in August of 2019, Steven Soderbergh used a movie as an excuse to cross the Atlantic on the Queen Mary II with Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, and Candice Bergen, and, honestly, we must respect the man’s hustle. Who among us wouldn’t do this, given half the chance? The resulting film, Let Them All Talk, seems built around that idea: It’s basically a hangout picture, a luxurious, two-hour ocean-crossing with these actors. You forgive its flaws, lest you seem like an ungrateful guest. And you wouldn’t want to piss off the host, either: For a guy who allegedly retired from filmmaking in 2013, Soderbergh has kept pretty busy, but he’s kept busy in ways that suggest he’s only making the kinds of movies he really, really wants to make and could drop everything and bail at a moment’s notice. Let Them All Talk is a warm, enjoyable trifle, yet it has a personal edge that suggests an artist who continues to wrestle with the nature of his work.
The screenplay is by the short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg, and despite it going to some surprising places by the very end, the plot itself feels like it was designed to set everything up and get out of the way. An acclaimed American author, Alice Hughes (Streep), is being presented with a prestigious award in the United Kingdom, but she refuses to fly, so her agents get the bright idea of booking her on a transatlantic luxury liner. She brings along two of her oldest friends, Susan (Wiest), a lawyer, and Roberta (Bergen), a lingerie-store clerk. The three women haven’t been together, we’re told, in over 30 years. But because she knows she won’t have a lot of time to spend with her friends on the ship, Alice also invites her earnest nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) to act as a kind of minder for the older ladies. Also tagging along, unbeknownst to Alice, is her new agent, Karen (Gemma Chan), who hopes to use the cruise to convince the author to write a sequel to her biggest novel, a book about which Alice has ambivalent feelings and for which, we eventually learn, she borrowed elements from young Roberta’s turbulent life wholesale.
“Let them all talk,” in this case, feels like an instruction to the cast and crew. The film is built largely around conversations (apparently improvised) between the actors, often with Soderbergh’s camera fixed in place, the frame immobile, with occasional cut-aways to the ship’s elegantly appointed rooms, to the quiet bustle of the kitchen and to rows of beautifully plated meals. (There’s a bit of The Trip quality to Let Them All Talk, though nobody ever actually talks about the food in this one.) Soderbergh’s locked-down aesthetic feels not so much like the poetic austerity of Yasujiro Ozu but the chilly stasis of surveillance-cam footage. That’s not such a bad thing, however. We feel like eavesdroppers throughout the movie. While not particularly intimate, the conversations feel personal and candid. As the embittered Roberta, who is hoping to find a wealthy suitor while also awaiting the moment when she can confront Alice about what she feels was a betrayal of her confidence many years before, Bergen displays her trademark slow-burn sassiness: We sense that this woman could destroy us with a single remark if she really wanted to. Wiest, who has always been a paragon of exceedingly polite fragility, hints at darker realities beneath Susan’s polite demeanor.
Streep, meanwhile, captures the airy bemusement of someone who has been living inside her head for too long. The film’s narrative, such as it is, represents a subtle journey of enlightenment for her. When Alice discovers that the ship has another author guest, Kelvin Kranz (Daniel Algrant), a hugely popular mystery writer, she at first regards him as a bit of a rube. When it turns out that Kelvin is not just brilliant but also a big fan of Alice’s work, she understandably softens.
One wonders if Soderbergh sees in their interactions the contrasting aspects of his own persona, the Artist and the Entertainer. Alice, for all her acclaim, bristles that her best work is underappreciated; Kelvin just churns his beloved potboilers out, a few months at a time. Back in the day, the Soderbergh of sex, lies, and videotape seemed to scoff at sequels and remakes and probably didn’t have pleasant thoughts about TV either; this was, of course, a perfectly natural attitude for an acclaimed indie filmmaker in 1989. Still, one wonders what that Soderbergh would think of the guy who went on to make the Oceans movies, a remake of Solaris, and who now shoots Netflix movies on his iPhone. (Let Them All Talk, I should note, is an HBO Max title.)
But that’s the journey, and we (and he) are better off for it. Despite starting his career off as Mr. Serious Director Man, one of Soderbergh’s strongest qualities has been his facility with humor, arguably the secret to his post-1990s revival. (Out of Sight is as much a screwball comedy as it is a crime picture. The melancholy Limey is filled with clever wordplay and visual gags. Erin Brockovich benefits immeasurably from Julia Roberts’s comic timing.) In Let Them All Talk, the way Soderbergh slips his way out of a scene can in itself be a punchline: When one person asks another if he can kiss her, and the other anxiously replies, “Oh shit,” you can cut right out and get a good belly-laugh without wallowing in the scorned lover’s humiliation. Sometimes, however, the cuttiness can feel premature: At several points, a scene ends just as it’s starting to get interesting. Yet that, too, feels strangely appropriate. We want to spend more time with these people, but the movie, like the cruise — and, as it’s suggested by the end, like life itself — has a very strict timeline.
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