Steven Soderbergh, the once-retired director who proclaimed that ‘movies don’t matter anymore,’ is back with a stellar cast for his new HBO Max film Let Them All Talk.
It’s a fitting title, given that the film steadies itself on conversations but not much more. As the story goes, a famous author invites her nephew and two old college friends on a cruise to the UK, seemingly to have space to unfold their painful past. Let Them All Talk is little more than a stroll along the upper deck with a slight gust of wind. That is to say, not much happens. It seems the script by Deborah Eisenberg, receiving her first writing credit, is unaware of who her characters are and the core attributes of the relationships.
While there are a few light moments, and Dianne Weist has perhaps the most illuminating monologue in the third act, it’s challenging to place this film in either a drama or comedy category because it doesn’t amount to much at all.
We meet Alice Hughes (Meryl Streep), a renowned Pulitzer prize-winning author and possibly teetering on the edge of an anxiety attack. She speaks with her new agent Karen (Gemma Chan), who needs to prove herself capable of representing some so high profile. It seems that Alice has won an award for fiction writing and she is disappointed that she can’t go because she is unable to fly to the UK. Karen offers the possibility of taking a cruise instead, to which Alice responds, ‘how many guests can I bring?’
There might not be much to know about Alice, but what is true is that she most likely doesn’t have many friends because she invites her old college buddies along, who are surprised by the invitation. Susan (Dianne Wiest) has a son who has just lost a lot of money from a shotty business investment, and he encourages her to leave on the trip. Roberta (Candice Bergen) works in a bra store and weasels her way out of her shifts to join. Tyler (Lucas Hedges), Alice’s nephew and somewhat assistant tells his friends about his impending departure like it’s a necessary privilege. She seems to trust him most… if anybody at all.
On the ship, Alice informs her friends on the first day that she will be writing, swimming, and writing some more, so she will probably only see them at dinner. Roberta and Susan are unaffected and set about enjoying themselves on the ship, even befriending a Stephen King-type author Kelvin Kranz (Daniel Algrant). Alice tries to connect with Roberta, who is angry with Alice for using her life as a plot for Alice’s most revered book. For his part, Tyler develops a friendship with Karen, who has decided to join the cruise in secret to spy on Alice and find out information about her next novel. What unfolds is a series of indirect conversations until the friends can reach a consensus about the relationship they want to have moving forward.
At times, there are glimpses of a better film. When Alice sits eating breakfast in her multi-level suite on the ship with Tyler, he asks her what her book’s plot is. Alice, seemingly over the question, struggles to answer until she says that she is trying to catch lightning in a bottle a second time. The response is loaded with meaning. It could be attributed to her career, friendships, or even her life in general.
However, the film is just a series of indirect conversations in nature, and these are the only illuminating words about Alice’s need to recapture her glory. Soderbergh chooses to cut into conversations without establishing these bonds. It’s a missed opportunity that this golden cast has a screenplay that doesn’t dig deeper.
Roberta, as played by Candice Bergen, is the most well-rounded character. We understand the effects of Alice’s book on her life, how she chose to move forward, and what lengths Roberta will go to get what she wants. It’s a commanding performance that often sees Roberta sitting at the dining table tight-lipped and on the verge of snapping at Alice’s narcissism. On the other hand, Susan and Alice are less developed, and though Dianne Wiest is an incredible talent, she has very little to play with here.
Interestingly, the most potent conversation between the friends happens at dinner, with Tyler and Karen joining. Alice and Roberta are acting entitled, and Susan snaps. She tells a story about Elon Musk and the satellites he has sent up into the sky that look like stars. She wants her friends to understand that they saw the night sky as it was, undisturbed by human-made machines. Just stars in the sky.
Dianne Wiest beautifully captures the heartache she feels and it affects those around her. Yet Soderbergh holds the focus on the screen to Tyler, and it’s unclear why. A performance is sacrificed for supposed character building. As an audience, we miss the opportunity to empathize with Susan and watch as Dianne Wiest’s soft, cracking voice dissolves into melancholy admiration. What a missed opportunity.