Soderbergh's latest avoids predictable conflicts to spotlight the lives of these characters in a more nuanced and believable way.
- 📘 Streep's reassurance to her nephew after a rejection is so comforting it should be repeated daily as a mantra.
- 📘 Performances by the entire cast give these characters a vivid sense of reality.
- 📘 Soderbergh's studious avoidance of indulging predictable drama occasionally robs the film of stronger conflict.
Steven Soderbergh directs films so unassumingly that it’s easy to forget they’re his. Let Them All Talk, his latest, was shot mostly aboard a cruise ship over a two week period with a cast that includes Meryl Streep, Diane Wiest, Candice Bergen, Lucas Hedges and Gemma Chan, and the only thing that hints at his presence is the top-to-bottom star wattage on screen. But even after minimizing himself so thoroughly that even the drama we start to expect risks tipping his hat, Soderbergh delivers another thoughtful character study that could only come from him, working out the rhythms of a potentially familiar story with a patience and nuance that builds to a quiet, irresistible wallop of emotion.
Streep (Little Women) plays Alice Hughes, an acclaimed author invited to England from New York to receive a prestigious award but unable to fly. When Karen (Chan), an agent from her publisher, suggests that she take a cruise ship to get there, Alice agrees only if she can bring her nephew Tyler (Hedges) and two oldest friends Roberta (Bergen) and Susan (Wiest). Searching for secrets about Alice’s latest project, which she hopes is a sequel to her Pulitzer-winning debut, Karen stows aboard the ship and enlists Tyler as a confidante to provide details about her progress, and if possible, her subject matter. But even as the two of them grow closer during the voyage, Roberta and Susan are left to their own devices, nurturing their own aims for this little reunion: Susan is eager to reconnect after years without seeing each other, while Roberta means to confront Alice for using her troubled life years ago as the basis of her most successful book.
As the three women navigate their way through both mundane meantime conversations and unresolved conflicts simmering below the surface, Tyler watches them for insights about their lives as he navigates a tender courtship with Karen he’s not sure she reciprocates. But after discoveries are made of a mysterious man (John Douglas Thommpson) leaving Alice’s stateroom several mornings in a row, and the group meets another best-selling author (Dan Algrant) with bigger sales and less pretense, their trip begins to take on a weight and an urgency that it didn’t start with, as Alice hopes to complete her new novel, reconcile with her estranged friends, and accept an award that might validate the compromises (and sacrifices) she made along the way.
Oddly, of all the movies of Soderbergh’s that Let Them All Talk reminds me of the most, it’s probably Magic Mike, which takes a different but equally soapy subject and either minimizes or somehow carves around all of its most obvious dramatic detours. They both hum along with a quiet confidence and refuse to let moments escalate into moviemaking fiction, after creating characters that should be larger than life (Streep’s Alice, McConaughey’s Dallas) but he coaches their actors to play utterly believably. Alice exudes a librarian’s disapproving intellect and an artist’s philosophical interpretation of the world, as sincerely beaming about the “miracle” of a forgotten author she thinks is brilliant as merciless about the creativity of one she considers a hack, and Streep captures this dimensionality with her typical effortlessness. Tender words like the ones Alice uses to comfort Tyler after a rejection, for example, are poetic and florid enough to be worthy of a daily mantra; but they also insulate her from the immediacy of the friends she left behind when they’re trying to talk about the mundane details of their lives, or quite frankly, almost anything that isn’t related to her writing.
As her counterparts, Bergen and Wiest are clear and brilliant in their roles, trading slightly on the familiarity of past performances but adding wonderful, sophisticated details to their characterizations. Wiest always comes across on screen as the most compassionate and delicate person you’ve ever seen, but as Susan, she’s a secret spitfire, revealing youthful liaisons and flashes of a devilish imagination of her own even as she reacts to her friends’ peccadilloes with a grandmother’s concern. Alternately desperate, embittered and clear-eyed, Bergen has pinned last-chance hopes on this reunion to repair a life left in shambles both by her own behavior and the book that exposed it to the world. “If you can’t keep a secret yourself, you can’t ask anyone else to,” she acknowledges, before admitting she wants Alice to remunerate her not only for past transgressions, but future ones as well.
At the same time, the film never belabors these conflicts as the characters change their sensitivity levels day by day; Roberta announces to Susan she plans to confront Alice, but keeps putting it off or rescheduling it in exactly the way we might if we were reluctant to deal with such a build-up in real life. Sometimes the sum total of these niggling frustrations doesn’t rise to quite enough of a level to truly move the viewer, but to paraphrase a particularly superficial platitude, with this film it’s the journey you’re following and not the destination. The fact that Soderbergh occasionally shoots it with the same jazzy rhythms as his Ocean’s movies (and enlists Thomas Newman to craft a score that’s equal parts heist and murder mystery) offers only a gentle push towards the story’s unsurprisingly powerful but understated conclusion.
Ultimately, this movie feels more like it’s about what it isn’t digging into what it is: it’s not about the way one woman’s success has defined three lives; it’s not about the creative process for a person whose past success frames every future work; it isn’t even a mirror reflecting two eras of friendship, filtered through the younger counterparts witnessing the trio’s reckoning with history. (That said, I could probably watch Chan and Hedges inch their way towards emotional intimacy with one another in different chambers of a cruise ship all day and night.) And so, Let Them All Talk is a perfect title for this good — and maybe just good enough — movie: it allows these characters to exist unvarnished and to display themselves on screen, without manipulating us to embrace or indict them. There may be stories in 2020 that are more affecting, or focused, or have more to say, but if you’re stuck at home, there are worse ways to pass the time than taking a cruise with this cast, especially with Soderbergh as its director.
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