Film

Review: Old Friends Navigate Stormy Waters in Steven Soderbergh’s Largely Improvised Let Them All Talk

Director Steven Soderbergh continues to enjoy (and thrive in) his un-retirement with such works as Logan Lucky, Unsane, High Flying Bird and the rare misstep The Laundromat, last year’s ensemble piece that marked his first collaboration with Meryl Streep. Apparently, the filmmaker managed to shoot another film during quarantine (No Sudden Move), so in the meantime we have his latest work to ponder, the largely improvised friendship drama Let Them All Talk, based on a story idea from award-winning writer Deborah Eisenberg. The film traces famous author Alice Hughes (Streep) who agrees to travel to Europe to accept a prestigious writing award, but only if she can travel by ship (the Queen Mary 2) and bring a small handful of old college friends and family with her.

Let Them All Talk

Image courtesy of HBO Max

With only a vague idea of where each scene needed to go and what needed to be conveyed within, Streep, Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen (as friends Susan and Roberta), and Lucas Hedges (as nephew Tyler) embarked on the actual weeklong crossing and managed to shoot an entire movie in the process, with results that appear as leisurely paced as the voyage itself, even if they occasionally hit some stormy seas. With her massive success as a writer, Alice has been understandably distant from her old friends; lawyer Susan represents parolees at their hearings, and Roberta works at a department store selling women’s underwear (so she sees this cruise as a way to meet ridiculously rich men in the hopes of solving her financial woes).

But Alice’s goal is to reconnect with her friends, which may or may mot be tied to the fact that her biggest literary hit (a Pulitzer winner, no less) might have been loosely based on Roberta’s early years and she’s possibly working on a sequel and needs details from Roberta’s current train-wreck life to fill in the gaps. Believing this to be Alice’s motive, Roberta essentially avoids her throughout the trip until she works up the courage to confront her about the earlier book and perhaps seek compensation.

The fifth player in this shipboard drama is Karen (Gemma Chan), Alice’s literary agent who has been tasked by her publishing company to get details about the novel Alice is currently working on. She secretly enlists Tyler to help her, even though he’s a good young man, loyal to his aunt. But Karen is attractive, and it doesn’t take long for Tyler to become smitten, so in the midst of this interpersonal drama among the three older friends, there’s a potential love story brewing as well, which certainly helps lighten the mood of the rest of the film.

What the film does best—and I think this is intentional on the part of Soderbergh and Eisenberg—is capture the mindset of and pressures upon successful writers. Alice is hoping to rediscover her roots and revisit some of the most enjoyable times in her life, but she’s so far removed from that reality that she has a tough time connecting to her old friends. It doesn’t help that she has a structured writing schedule on board the vessel that doesn’t leave a great deal of time for socializing. These two parts of her life tear at her and make the writing that much more difficult.

There’s a familiar, golden, rustic hue to Let Them All Talk (as he often does, Soderbergh shot and edited the film himself), and it’s somehow comforting to watch these powerhouse actors stroll around the QM2, masterfully judging and tearing into each other without raising their voices even slightly. I particularly enjoyed the way Roberta’s character reveals herself over the course of the story, making herself sympathetic because she had her life stolen, in a manner of speaking, only to show her true intentions without remorse in the final part of the movie. Let Them All Talk has a couple of somewhat pointless twists at the end, mostly involving Alice; and Wiest’s Susan is somewhat underutilized when all is said and done, but somehow that doesn’t stop things from gelling nicely.

Even amid the icy exchanges and intrigue, the film maintains a cozy presence, like something you want to sink into—partly because the setting is so sumptuous and warm, partly because the performers are so even-keeled, even in their most emotional state. Or maybe it’s the gentle rumble of the water or the ship’s engines that serve as the aural backdrop of Let Them All Talk that makes everything seem less anxious than it clearly is for some on this trip. Whatever it is, it pulled me in and made me care about each and every person in this story. As far as recent Soderbergh goes, it sits somewhere in the middle of the last few films, and that’s a good place to be from where I’m sitting.

The film begins streaming December 10 on HBO Max.

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