Let Them All Talk (2020), Comfort Food For Soderbergh Fans

This movie is perplexing for a variety of reasons. What is this movie? Why does it exist? What even is it? Now, these aren’t words normally said about a movie playing to the same market as Book Club but this is directed by Steven Soderbergh dammit! This is the guy who remade Solaris and didn’t fuck it up! This is the guy who made Magic Mike and Side Effects! This is one of the most innovative and freewheeling directors around who will take literally any subject or genre and make it interesting and dramatic and subversive. So what is he doing making a very cozy, lightly comedic, witty, comedic drama for wine moms? I suppose with his dartboard approach to genre he was bound to land here eventually, it’s just so strange to see him do this and even stranger for it to end up being one of his dramatically tightest works. 

The film stars Maryl Streep as Alice Hughes, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who is in a rut. She knows she’s reaching the end of her life but dammit loads of artists made their best work in their age. She hasn’t had another real hit since her initial one that made her name. She’s told her publishers that in her new book she’s resurrecting one of her characters for a new story. At the same time she’s been asked to travel to Britain to accept an honorary award but for mysterious reasons, can’t fly. So, with a few compatriots, take a boat across the Atlantic; Hughes, her nephew/assistant played by Lucas Hedges in one of his most convincing and charming performances, two of her oldest and estranged friends, and a representative from the publishing company who has covertly boarded the boat to try and pry information about the new book from the ensuing gossip to feed back to her publisher, but Alice cannot know she’s aboard! Everyone has a unique perspective on things and the interpersonal relationships soon take some expected and unexpected turns. Gossip abounds as does sly comments and dramatic revelations as everyone’s trapped on a boat they can’t get off of. Let them all talk indeed! 

So firstly, there are a few things to say about the circumstances around this film’s making that are required backdrop. The film makes a very pointed note of the name of the boat, The Queen Mary 2, which most of the film was shot entirely on, within the duration of one journey, with Soderbergh only using only natural light. This maybe goes some way to understanding why Soderbergh wanted to take on this project. With a lot of the dialogue being improvised by a smartly picked cast, this represents, in many ways, everything Soderbergh has always liked to do with his movies. If you take a moment to unpick his back catalogue it’s full of little curios that it feels like Soderbergh made purely because he could. You have the fascinating documentary … And Everything Is Going Fine, The Girlfriend Experience, and Bubble. All of which represent films made by Soderbergh, amongst other reasons, just to see if he could make a film that way. This is also seen in his recent spate of iPhone movies like High Flying Bird and Unsane, two great films, but two films that also feel like their prime creative drive is technical. Let Them All Talk is like this but in a slightly modified way. 

The primary technical challenge here is essentially, it seems, whether Soderbergh, one of the most polished and stylish directors working today, make his version of a mumblecore film entirely cast with some of the most famous faces in Hollywood. Soderbergh employs a few of his classical tricks to keep it running smoothly though. The film has his usual sense of polished style that helps the best of these kinds of movies move with a flow and verve. The score and cinematography evokes a very French New Wave idea of slick and cool while evoking the works of Fellini and other Italian filmmakers who channeled that feeling of ennui laden slickness that you feel in films like 8 ½

Now even then this film could still crumble like a badly cooked souffle if not done just right. You’re combining up-and-comers who are yet to really prove themselves like Lucas Hedges with A-listers like Meryl Streep with actors known primarily for television roles like Gemma Chan. While it is probably smart to bring in television actors for this kind of improvised movie, (the way a lot of television shows are made are not dissimilar to the creative process employed by Soderbergh here and actors take more of a creative role typically, being the one creative constant in many shows), there are many different acting styles and acting classes on screen here. The smart casting shines through though, it’s easy now to forget Meryl Streep in the past has method acted being dead on stage, so this kind of improvising in character is well within her wheelhouse. She shows a deft ability with this kind of barbed dialogue in the classic film, The Devil Wears Prada, a film that only seems to age better and better with time. Also, while Lucas Hedges could just be seen to be here to capitalise on his rising star, he delivers his best performance thus far here, especially in his improvised dialogue. He shows a very mature ability to sympathetically show the follies of people in his age range with knowledge, dimension, and naturalism. 

Hedges’ plotline in particular with Chan’s character is done with a painfully recognisable observation and truth. Chan and Hedges’ characters enter into a very complicated relationship where they both think they’re getting different things out of their knowing each other, and the fact is that in my life I have seen very similar dynamics play out time and time again, and it’s captured perfectly in this movie. This is representative of the real joy of this movie, that it is uncommonly dramatically dense. All of the relationships have a lot of dramatic nuance and understanding held by the filmmakers. The key to it all is actually Dianne Wiest’s character, who gets caught in the middle of Streep and Candice Bergen’s remote bickering. There’s also a lovely running gag of Bergen and Wiest exchanging gossip over various board games that reflect the state of the conversation they’re having. As the moral centre of the discourse, Wiest manages to deftly lead us through the moral maze of the plot. 

Another thing worth noting is how successfully cozy this movie is. For most of the film there aren’t a whole lot of material consequences in terms of severing of ties or ending relationships but relationships change, gain new colours and shades. People learn things about other people and adjust the way they think about them. It’s very cozy like that, and it reflects something very true about life, I think, in terms of how people interact with other people they know very well. The dramatic revelations and melodramatic ending of ties is rare and although, in many ways, this film is investigating the aftermath of an event like that, in terms of the actual contents of the film, it is much more concerned with capturing the mundane drama of everyday life in a way that is as rich a textured as some of Soderbergh’s more melodramatic pieces. 

This all culminates in an ending that in others’ hands would come off as horribly contrived but again, Soderbergh is able to find the truth in such events and portray it with nuance and intelligence. Let Them All Talk is not going to change the world, but if you give it your time and patience it will unlock beautifully before you.

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