Steven Soderbergh’s latest “Let Them All Talk” is about as unconventional as they come. I’m not referring to the story or even the characters. It’s unconventional in the way the ever-experimenting Soderbergh made it. Filming lasted just under two weeks with the majority taking place on a cruise ship as it crossed the Atlantic full of actual staff and customers. Soderbergh shot the film himself with his own camera using natural lighting and with only sound equipment present. And the cast improvised most of the dialogue with Deborah Eisenberg’s screenplay serving as an outline rather an actual script.
The film is based on a short story written by Eisenberg about three old friends reconnecting and eventually opening up about hurt feelings from their past. It is directed, shot, and edited by Soderbergh and anchored by three charismatic veteran actresses. With its small budget and limited setting, the film is fully focused on its characters, heavily relying on their frequent and immensely talky interactions. Let’s just say the film is appropriately titled, but it works thanks to a game cast with the talent to pull it off.
Meryl Streep plays Alice, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who is set to win a major award from her peers. The problem is the ceremony is being held in England and she can’t fly. So her agent Karen (Gemma Chan) organizes a transatlantic cruise (oops, crossing) for her client. Karen has well-meaning motives of her own. With her boss breathing down her neck, she desperately needs to get details on Alice’s long-awaited next book. Her hopes are the cruise (errr, crossing) will give Alice time to finally finish her manuscript.
Alice agrees to go but her only condition is that she can invite some friends along. So she calls two old college pals she hasn’t seen in years in hopes of reuniting the “Gang of 3“. Both agree to come – Susan (Dianne Wiest), an easy-going women’s advocate from Seattle and the cash-strapped Roberta (Candace Bergen), a testy Texan who works in a Dallas department store selling lingerie. Alice also invites her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges), a university student in Cleveland. The final piece is Karen who secretly books herself a cabin to keep an eye on Alice and her writing progress.
Each board the Queen Mary 2 traveling from New York to Southampton, each with their own hesitations and expectations for the trip. The tightly wound Alice, the even keel Susan, and the surly Roberta finally get together for dinner in what plays like an awkward first meeting more than a reunion of old friends. Over the course of the voyage each slowly begins to unwind over an array of fine meals, boards games, and strolls along the deck. But along with breaking the ice comes the resurfacing of old wounds in desperate need of healing.
Meanwhile Tyler becomes the semi-reluctant go-between. ￼Karen wants Tyler to keep an eye on Alice. Alice wants Tyler to keep tabs on her two friends. Roberta has Tyler running background checks on potential rich suitors, and so on. And Soderbergh often uses Tyler as our eyes and ears, observing finer details in conversations as well as noticing particularly usual behavior. For example who is that strange man who exits Alice’s room every morning at the same time?
The performances are strong especially from the three vets who bring plenty of personality to their roles. Only Hedges has trouble with the improvisation, occasionally struggling to find his words. Some of his more dialogue-heavy￼scenes have a strange reality show feel to them￼, which I guess in a movie like this could be either a compliment or a criticism.￼ I found it a little distracting.
There are stretches when “Let Them All Talk” loses any sense of progression either for the story or its characters. It simply stalls, heavy with conversations that do little to move things forward. But that’s actually by design. The film is all about how far we will go to avoid the conversations we need to be having and how waiting too late can have its consequences. It shows how easy we turn our attention away from problems that need dealing with even if it’s with someone we call a friend. Those are admirable ideas that Soderbergh does a good job exploring. But that doesn’t always make for the most compelling viewing despite the incredible and hard-working talent on display. “Let Them All Talk” premieres December 10th on HBO Max.
VERDICT – 3 STARS