If there is any affinity to be found between Steven Soderbergh and Olivier Assayas, it’s in their shared ability to turn the economics of filmmaking to their advantage, to leverage each project into a veritably Situationist endeavor — or, in other words, to recognize “the game on top of the game,” as Bill Duke puts things in High Flying Bird. In this respect, Let Them All Talk and Non-Fiction are the directors’ closest points of contact, each film using its book publishing milieu to craft a self-consciously modish comedy about the commodification of speech. For his part, Soderbergh convinced an accomplished fiction writer (Deborah Eisenberg) and a cast of seasoned pros (Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest) to come onboard the Queen Mary 2 for a semi-improvised shoot across a single trans-Atlantic passage. The result is a marvelous (and marvelously photographed) comedy of inarticulateness, one that doesn’t just play on a writer’s stereotypical fear of speech (exemplified by Streep’s vapid, self-absorbed novelist, Alice Hughes), but also turns improvisational dead air into a virtue. The ocean liner setting further connects the film to a tradition of Hollywood cruise ship movies from One Way Passage to The Lady Eve, and thus to a long lineage of seafaring cons and pros. What Let Them All Talk understands, though, is that the eloquent, eminently literate hustlers that once populated those films — not to mention Soderbergh’s own work, from Out of Sight to the Oceans trilogy — are, in our data-driven present, a defunct class of criminal. Though once the glamorous backdrop of romance and adventure, the cruise ship is now just another outpost of neoliberal capitalism, where sparkling dialogue and elegant cons have been replaced by awkward probings, demeaning exchanges of business cards, and ersatz entertainment. In the age of the tell-all confessional, both words and personal relationships have lost their former value. Increasingly, every person knows they’re being played, plays accordingly, and just avoids talking about it. Ultimately, as at this film’s end, the winners are those who, consciously or not, avoid acknowledging that there’s a game to be played at all.
Published as part of Top 25 Films of 2020 — 25-11.