Synopsis: A famous author goes on a cruise trip with her friends and nephew in an effort to find fun and happiness while she comes to terms with her troubled past.
Stars: Meryl Streep, Gemma Chan, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges, Daniel Algrant, John Douglas Thompson
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: If there’s one thing to be said about veteran filmmakers, it’s that they can get a movie put together quickly. I kind of marvel at the endless gestation periods franchise pictures need to make their way to their release date (it’s not all about how long the special effects takes, trust me) or how particular directors struggle with the fine-tuning part of their oversight that keeps a project from getting in front of the viewer. Then you have your Spielbergs, Eastwoods, and Soderberghs who can churn out movies, and often good ones, with such ease it feels like they just woke up and decided to make a movie that day. There’s more to the planning of it of course but when you have as much experience as they do this process starts to come naturally. At the tail end of 2020, a number of people were taken a bit off guard when Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk was announced as complete and ready for release…how did this Meryl Streep led serio-comic film on the high seas get this close to us with no one taking notice?
Many a film fan got weepy when Oscar-winning director Soderbergh put out a very public statement that he was retiring. The vanguard director that led the ‘80s independent film wave in Hollywood had accumulated an impressive list of box office successes and critical hits during his time in the business, earning respect from colleagues and admiration from celebrities who knew him to be an actors director. Showing a knack for casting down to even the most minor role, for a while Soderbergh couldn’t lose…until he began to take a “one for them, one for me” approach and his ratio of winners to losers started to shrink. Too many bombs and experimental failures followed before a last gasp strange run of oddball efforts between 2008 and 2013 (including Magic Mike and Side Effects) that led to his retreat into television and his supposed retirement.
He didn’t stay put for long. Making a somewhat stealth return with 2017’s pleasing Logan Lucky (written by his wife, who felt the strange need to use a pseudonym), Soderbergh has been trying something a bit new with each project. His high concept TV effort Mosaic for HBO started as an interactive app that aided audiences in solving a murder mystery, 2018’s Unsane was filmed completely with an iPhone, and 2019’s The Laundromat did the unthinkable – it found an accent and make-up that Meryl Streep couldn’t convincingly pull off. For a man several years into retirement, he’s certainly keeping busy with his previous job.
Streep and Soderbergh are teaming up again with Let Them All Talk for HBO Max and it brings a screenplay by humorist and noted short story author Deborah Eisenberg to life and for better or worse, it’s a big improvement over the last time the star and director worked together. For one, it’s not based on real life events, something that tended to stymie The Laundromat and bound the filmmakers to certain limitations. It also spreads the wealth nicely among co-stars, with Streep often graciously exiting stage left in favor of her other highly respected co-stars to have their moment in the spotlight. Soderbergh is no dummy, though, and he trots his star out for the less strong members of the cast or when the mostly improvised dialogue starts to stall out.
Everyone is waiting for the next novel from Pulitzer-winner Alice Hughes (Streep, Hope Springs) who has been struggling with completing her latest manuscript, rumored to be a sequel to her most famous book. Recently moved to new agent Karen (Gemma Chan, Crazy Rich Asians) that she’s not totally comfortable with, Alice prefers to work at her own pace and doesn’t like to be rushed in her process. Karen’s under pressure from their publisher, though, and isn’t as much of a friendly shoulder pushover like her predecessor. With Alice set to receive an esteemed award in London that’s rarely given out, Karen seizes the opportunity to get Alice focused on the work and raise her profile a bit in the process. There’s one problem, though, NY based Alice doesn’t like to fly. But this is New York, darling…so through Karen’s connections it’s off to London on the Queen Mary II with Alice and her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges, Boy Erased) acting as her assistant of sorts.
Also invited along are two of Alice’s oldest friends she hasn’t seen in quite some time. Though Alice doesn’t know it, Roberta (Candice Bergen, Book Club) is more frenemy than anything, holding a long grudge against her friend through an unproven theory that she took secret information told in confidence and used it as the basis for her bestselling novel. She’s spent the ensuing decades blaming her for the shambles her life has become as a result. The peace-keeper of the bunch is free-spirited Susan (Dianne Wiest, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) who has come on the trip for all the right reasons in wanting to reconnect with her old friends and help the other two mend a fence long broken. When Karen hops on board and starts to work in secret with Tyler to get more information on his aunt, it creates another side relationship the movie has to juggle throughout it’s two hour run time.
Acting once again as his cinematographer (credited as Peter Andrews) and editor (under the name Mary Ann Bernard), there’s not a lot Soderbergh isn’t involved with here and you can feel it. Much of the movie was improvised and that’s why for every dymanic scene there are two are three insignificant ones of mundane goings on that Soderbergh feels drawn to. From the obvious improvisation in many scenes (most evident with Chan and Hedges who tend to commit the kiss of boring death in making their improvised dialogue far too specific, serious, and detailed) to the hand-held filming, it has all the calling cards the director is known for. What it also has is a sort of deep sadness to it as well and while that provides good space for seasoned actors like the three leads to play in, it winds up making you feel bad for everyone. Sad that friends can’t be honest, sad that family can’t be more vulnerable, sad that too much goes unsaid until too late.
As is often the case with Soderbergh, he runs the film on its rims several miles longer than necessary. It was pretty disappointing to come out of the movie dovetailing from a quite touching ending to a pointlessly overlong coda that was of no benefit. By that point, we’d already filled our cup with the impressive showings of Bergen, Wiest, and Streep. Anytime Streep is onscreen you can’t help but be drawn to her magnetic aura but Soderbergh has found a way to harness that by sandwiching her between two other actresses of her generation that also possess the same sort of power to command a screen. They have presence and in different ways. Bergen is playing right into the type we want her to be and that’s good, though I wish the script had provided her one more establishing scene with Streep earlier in the film, it would make a later bedroom scene work that much better. How wonderful to see Wiest knock it out of the park here playing a kind of extension of her worldly but not perfect character from Parenthood. Her wry revelations to Bergen over their daily parlor games by the ocean are a riot and a lovely speech summing up the journey up is the film’s true high point.
If Soderbergh is going to continue to skate that line of retirement, I hope he stays with this kind of dour material because he seems to have found a nice, if imperfect fit with his own interests. This is bound to draw comparisons to the films of Woody Allen and I can’t imagine this didn’t cross the minds of everyone involved at one time or another. It’s got the same arch rhythm, conversations about nothing that are about everything, and that wistful longing for the joy of travel but not the pain of separation. Let Them All Talk is not going to rank high on the Best-Of list for any of the cast or crew when all is said and done but it’s one of the more interesting experiments mad scientist Soderbergh has concocted. And who wouldn’t want to sail across the Ocean with at least one of these three stellar stars?