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Review: Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk Is an Exhilarating Comedy of Regret

Soderbergh’s formal gamesmanship enlivens what could have been a stodgy scenario.

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Let Them All Talk
Photo: HBO Max

On the surface, Let Them All Talk suggests a routine dramedy about late-life crisis, in this case concerning a successful author who reaches out to old friends in an attempt to deal with longstanding regrets. Alice (Meryl Streep) won the Pulitzer Prize long ago for a bestselling novel whose success she resents. Sparked by a suggestion from her literary agent, Rachel (Gemma Chan), who’s eager for Alice to deliver her latest manuscript, the author makes a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2 from New York to Britain, where she’s to accept a prestigious literary award. Joining Alice are two friends from college, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest), as well as her nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges), who wishes to study people who came of age before social media. With such a setup, one could normally devise a flowchart predicting when each character will learn to live out loud.

Let Them All Talk, though, is directed by the ever-adventurous Steven Soderbergh, who has a thorny relationship with formula. The filmmaker prizes genres for their iconography and sense of ritual, though he scrambles and slows them down so as to concentrate on atmosphere and suppressed emotions. Refreshingly, Soderbergh has a particular distaste for characters telling audiences what they want to hear, especially for the sake of the latter’s orientation. In the case of Let Them All Talk, scenes are often nipped in the bud just when they appear to be reaching a crescendo, forcing us to recognize that the anticipation of a climax, whether or not it’s experienced, is the film’s real subject. Alice, Roberta, and Susan are sad and conditioned by experience to guard themselves, while Tyler is on the verge of encountering the sort of disappointment and heartbreak that compel people to guard themselves in the first place.

Almost to a fault, Soderbergh resists the boisterousness that we expect from a reunion comedy, as Let Them All Talk’s central trio of characters are often separated, cordoned off into different factions that sometimes include Tyler and Rachel, and this sense of fragmentation becomes a dry running joke. Alice routinely asks Roberta to have a drink with her only to be matter-of-factly rebuffed, as there’s tension between the two women that threatens to dwarf the poignantly modest Susan, who’s often recruited as Roberta’s partner for board games over tea and coffee, where they primarily discuss Roberta’s animus and Alice’s pretension. In a sharp, surreal joke, a game of Scrabble reveals the subtext of a fraught conversation.

The film was shot over two weeks on the real Queen Mary 2 and improvised under Soderbergh and screenwriter Deborah Eisenberg’s supervision, and the actors’ sense of control is especially phenomenal given these circumstances. The dialogue isn’t shaggy in the tradition of most improvisatory comedies, but precise and finely honed in order to draw blood, accentuated by richly comic and melancholic body language. At the head of a superb cast, Streep allows one to see that Alice’s pretension is inseparable from her loneliness, serving as an expression of her insecurity, creativity, and desire for connection. These longings are made manifestly clear in one of the film’s most moving scenes, in which Alice gives a lecture on the ship, paying a tribute to an obscure author that announces her desire to be understood. Streep is too electrically brittle, too alive with inner furies, to resort to platitude, rendering her character recognizably maddening and lost in this sequence and many others.

The film inevitably invites comparison to Azazel Jacobs’s French Exit, which also stars Hedges as a young man attempting to make sense of family and friendship in a virtually identical setting. In its most vivid passages, French Exit luxuriated in the glamorous mystery of a cruise ship, which Soderbergh mines less for intrigue than for the emptiness felt by people who need to go looking for it. There’s a sense that this self-conscious artist isn’t allowing his characters to surprise themselves, and so Let Them All Talk can feel locked in a holding pattern of disappointment and miscommunication, even if that’s by design. It’s as if Soderbergh is hesitant to let his characters cut loose for fear of turning the film into something routinely uproarious, making us want for a vulgar curveball or two, or even simply a joke that’s rooted in warmth rather than detachment. As such, it’s bracing when one scene, which finds Alice transcending her myopia to comfort Tyler, disrupts Let Them All Talk’s moroseness.

That isn’t to say that Let Them All Talk lacks for the exhilaration of Soderbergh’s signature formal gamesmanship, which here enlivens what could have been a stodgy scenario. His compositions abound in characters suspended in negative space, emphasizing their sense of longing, while also suggesting the intricate bowels of a ship that’s playing host to other unseen stories. Meanwhile, Soderbergh’s editing is characteristically sharp throughout, transforming the characters’ conversations into curt and rhythmic sonatas. These techniques aren’t examples of style for its own sake, as they show Soderbergh regarding the trio of legends at the film’s center with curiosity and respect as co-conspirators, as the ferocious stars of an atmospheric comedy of regret, rather than as potential gold-watch recipients who’re headlining condescendingly life-affirming pabulum.

Cast: Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Gemma Chan, Lucas Hedges Director: Steven Soderbergh Screenwriter: Deborah Eisenberg Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 113 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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