Let Them All Talk

Literary agent Karen (Gemma Chan) has to walk a fine line assuming author Alice (Meryl Streep) as a client.  The older writer, a mix of pretentious self regard and career insecurity, snaps when Karen tries to get information on her current project, stating that ‘Sonya never invaded my process.’  But Karen proves adept coming up with a solution to receiving the Footling Prize, a prestigious award conferred by other writers which Alice is thrilled about – except for having to board a plane to England for the ceremony.  Karen arranges free passage, not only for Alice but three guests as well, aboard the Queen Mary 2 for the exchange of a shipboard lecture in “Let Them All Talk.”

Laura's Review: B-

Not since “Ocean’s Twelve” has director/cinemtographer/editor Steven Soderbergh delivered a vacation film for a prestigious cast, but this time around it’s an actors’ piece.  With a script outline written by short story author Deborah Eisenberg fleshed out with improvised dialogue and a new RED camera allowing for a small location footprint, the film was shot during a live crossing from New York to London last August.  It’s an interesting exercise that thankfully puts Lucas Hedges, as Alice’s nephew Tyler, and Chan into awkward situations that provide improvisational cover, the veterans more adept thinking on their feet.

After introducing Alice and Karen, Soderbergh switches locations to introduce the two old college chums who’ll be invited to accompany her.  In Seattle, Susan (Dianne Wiest), an advocate for female prisoners, fusses over her packing.  In Dallas, Roberta (Candice Bergen) deals with a customer who insists the ‘peacock blue’ brassiere she’s selling is actually teal.  It won’t take long to assess Susan as a peacemaker and Roberta, the easily identified character of Rowena in one of Alice’s buzziest books, as a grudge-bearer.  Neither has spoken to Alice in about thirty years.  When the group meets up in a lounge after check-in, Alice regally informs them ‘I’m not going to be available,’ her nephew charged with maintaining schedules until evening dinner seating.

There is a mystery to be solved here, just what Alice’s motivation is in reuniting with these two old friends and Eisenberg plants plot nuggets, some misdirecting, that will eventually tie everything together.  When Roberta isn’t on the hunt for a sugar daddy, she’s kvetching to Susan over games of Scrabble.  Alice has her set routine of writing followed by lunch in her two-story (!) suite followed by a 3 p.m. swim before meeting them for dinner.  Karen, who has booked passage unbeknownst to Alice, surreptitiously approaches Tyler to get much sought after information about the content of her new novel and Tyler ends up falling for her.

It is no surprise that Streep manages to create a complex character here, assuming Alice’s idea of an intellectual speaking voice (which Susan and Roberta remark upon) yet revealing her insecurities by the way she seizes on any interest in her work.  Streep’s embrace of her character demands we not judge her too harshly, the actress’s work born out in the film’s last act.  Wiest offers her usual earth mother, the group’s ballast, while Bergen provides the comedy laced with a bit of opportunistic bile.  Hedges and Chan are a bit out of their depth amidst this group, but the younger actor crushes believably on the older beauty, caught between romance and familial loyalty.

There are some delicious threads woven throughout, like Alice’s championing of Blodwyn Pugh, an obscure author, for literary cred and the shipboard presence of prolific best selling thriller writer Kelvin Kranz, who turns out to be genuinely charming, to put a bee in her bonnet.  Perhaps because of limitations on interfering with paying passengers, Soderbergh’s use of the Queen Mary 2 is limited to a few suites, a lounge, a somewhat cramped looking dining room, a fogged in deck and a VIP pool area, behind-the-scenes areas like kitchens and laundries used as cutaways (for such a prestigious ship, the very yellow, very narrow hallways are almost depressing).  Thomas Newman’s score is like a throwback to a 60’s caper film with its snare drums and xylophone.

“Let Them All Talk” is somewhat shaggy around the edges as regards its story telling, its make-it-up-as-you-go-along method more evident than it should be.  Still, Soderbergh’s embrace of taking on challenges like this is always interesting and crossing the pond with Streep, Wiest and Bergen is time well spent.

Robin's Review: B-

"Let Them All Talk" will be available on HBO Max on 12/10/20.