Despite its misguided ending, Let Them All Talk remains a refreshingly open-ended and low-stakes pleasure.
In the past decade, Adam Sandler has been regularly accused of using filmmaking as an excuse to go on vacation with his friends. The same could arguably be said of Steven Soderbergh under normal circumstances, but it’s especially true of his latest, Let Them All Talk, for which he boarded a ship with Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, and Dianne Wiest, though it’s hard to imagine that being levied as a criticism against it. This is not a knock on Soderbergh’s film, but rather an observation of the different critical latitudes granted to what is perceived as high and low art respectively. If this breezy, funny new film is any indication, Soderbergh and writer Deborah Eisenberg might agree with that sentiment: the divide between the highbrow and the low is on the film’s mind throughout, even if it rarely drills down on it. It’s one of several threads in a film that is denser than it looks and, as it colors so much of the human drama, specifically in how the film’s characters treat each other, it might be what’s most essential here.
Streep stars as Alice Hughes, an author of literary fiction who is traveling by sea to the United Kingdom in order to receive an award not commonly bestowed. Joining her for the journey are two old friends, Roberta (Bergen) and Susan (Wiest), and her nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges). Unbeknownst to Alice, her agent (Gemma Chan) has also boarded on a mission from the agency to spy on the writer and push her to write a sequel to her most beloved novel, You Always, You Never. Despite that book’s success — it made loads of money and won the Pulitzer — Alice disdains the work, openly expressing pride in her much less popular novels. It’s clear that Alice’s feelings towards that book are not mere bitterness about it overshadowing her other work, but instead might stem from a more general dislike of anything “popular.” When the women learn that another author, essentially a James Patterson analog who has written “hundreds of books,” is aboard the ship, Alice scoffs at the idea that her friends would read that sort of work and even insults the man to his face. Alice is far more interested in what she sees to be obscure, both accounting for her own works and in general, going as far as to assign her friends a novel that only she seems to have heard of. It seemingly never crosses Alice’s mind that her friends might not be on this cruise just to celebrate her, but rather to simply take two weeks away from work. She’s likewise class blind, as much as she is elitist in her taste, and her overall characterization here is made more cutting in how she seems not to notice the rift that her attitudes have created between herself and her old friends.
In other words, Alice is a character that is easy work for Streep, who notably turns in her best performance in some time, even as she could nail this role in her sleep. Recent Streep performances, such as her turn in the otherwise lovely Little Women, have increasingly tended towards distracting, self-satisfied play-acting, as if the actress is just pleased to be Meryl and is winking to the audience. It’s not necessary to ask that stars disappear into their roles, but Streep’s inclination towards sticking out is so often approached with a mannered and laborious glee. Alice Hughes, however, is a less showy sort of character, one whose specific brand of beguiling obnoxiousness subsumes many of Meryl’s tics and alchemizes them into something worth spending time with. She speaks to her friends as if addressing an audience from a pulpit, manufacturing pauses and a slight stutter to make her pretentious missives of pop philosophy seem spontaneous. She holds court in her every interaction, making honest communication nigh impossible.
Roberta also bears ill will towards You Always, You Never, but her beef is more personal than artistic: she thinks the book is about her and its publication ruined her life, leading her to spend her old age working in a lingerie store. Bergen has rarely been better and is every bit as good as Streep here, if not even better. Roberta is a coiled ball of unspoken grief looking to unload, all the while scouring the boat for a rich and eligible man, and Bergen balances her character well, without ever resorting to the big emotions one might expect from a character so beside herself with rage. Watching the two women avoid confrontation with one another is the main narrative tension of the film, to the extent that there even is tension. Soderbergh is less interested in an unraveling here than in, well, letting them all talk. There’s very little incident in the film, the director instead opting for a series of conversations that range from philosophical to plainly social. Any sub-plots that develop from these — like Tyler’s awkward attempts to woo Alice’s agent — are there for color, humor, and a bit of thematic resonance rather than a thrust towards culmination. But as the ship arrives in England, the film too reaches its conclusion and slightly betrays its open-endedness and low-stakes pleasure.
Indeed, the finale is perhaps the one false note in the film, revealing several running threads as having been part of a puzzle construction. That it doesn’t set up the pieces in play as part of a mystery is to the movie’s credit, but the sudden intrusion of a plot point used to tie up a few ends and thuddingly emphasize the most obvious meaning of the film threatens to sink the entire ship. Thankfully, the journey there is easygoing and thoughtful enough to ultimately keep Let Them All Talk afloat.
You can view Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk on HBO Max beginning on December 10.