Can you even imagine going on a cruise again? I’m sure some people are perfectly fine with the idea – heck, some people would be willing to go right now, this very second, if they could. But here in the age of the coronavirus, cruises seem like floating Petri dishes; isolated barges with no escape. Which makes Steven Soderbergh‘s curious Let Them All Talk already feel weirdly dated. It’s set in a world where people gather freely, maskless, throwing their cares to the wind. They board a huge ship and take to the sea. It’s almost surreal at this point.
Anticipating all of this, Soderbergh is quick to tell us up front that the entire film is set in 2019. That’s only a year ago. And yet…you can’t help being distracted by how different the world of the film seems. Another thing that makes Soderbergh’s latest so distinguishable: it’s unapologetically low-stakes. Here is a film where friends gather, converse, occasionally air old grievances. But there’s no ticking clock. No doomsday device. No special effects. I’d almost forgotten you could still make movies like that.
Author Alice Hughes (Meryl Streep) is struggling to pen her next book. Her new literary agent Karen (Gemma Chan) would really like Alice to write a sequel to one of her most popular tomes – but Alice doesn’t seem interested. She’s cagey and stand-offish about the whole thing. She’s also due to accept an award in England, but she stresses that she can’t fly. Karen has a solution: she’ll book Alice on the QE2, and Alice can ride the ship from New York to the UK. And along the way, she can also work on her new book.
Alice goes for the idea, with a stipulation: she wants to bring guests. Those guests include two of her college friends, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest). Alice also brings along her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges). And, while Alice doesn’t know it, Karen is coming along too, to keep tabs on the difficult author and make sure she’s churning out her manuscript.
Once at sea it becomes clear that the dear old friends aren’t as friendly as we might have thought. Alice barely spends any time with them – she says she has to work, after all. And Roberta is harboring a grudge. She’s convinced that a character in one of Alice’s books was based on her – and she wasn’t alone in that assumption. In fact, the book directly broke up Roberta’s marriage and, in her eyes, ruined her life. As a result, she gives Alice the cold shoulder every chance she gets. So why come on the cruise at all? Soderbergh gets to that. Eventually.
Let Them All Talk is in no rush. It moves at the same sort of drifting pace as an ocean liner, lumbering along, taking its time. Deborah Eisenberg‘s script (which was apparently more of a loose story outline that the cast riffed on) isn’t interested in big dramatic confrontations. Any time one seems about to rear its ugly head, the film changes to the subject. The same goes for the potential for a kind of screwball romance between Tyler and Karen. The lit agent ropes the nephew into helping with her scheme, and Tyler, clearly smitten, is happy to go along. All the pieces are in place. But Let Them All Talk isn’t interested in putting them together.
This all results in a truly curious film. While the low-stakes approach is refreshing and even novel in this day and age, it also results in a listless journey. It helps that Soderbergh has a crackerjack cast at his disposal. Streep’s Alice comes across and cold and aloof at first, but there’s more to her than meets the eye, and it allows the acclaimed performer to do great stuff with Alice’s inner workings. We can see the gears turning behind her eyes.
Bergen and Wiest are both a hoot as the friends, with Bergen’s Roberta given much more to do, playing up Roberta’s bitterness. Weist’s Susan feels oddly underused – until a late scene gives her a wonderful little speech about stars and satellites that she delivers perfectly. Hedges is delightful as the doting, lovesick nephew, while Chan’s lit agent seems like the most grounded individual in the group.
When Let Them All Talk finally reaches its destination, it feels like another Soderbergh experiment. He literally took his cast on a cruise for the flick – shooting for two weeks with his cast improvising whenever they could. The journey is enjoyable – but oddly forgettable. It’s like a quick vacation that immediately starts to fade from memory the moment you return.
/Film rating: 7 out of 10
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