What do you get when you put Steven Soderbergh, Deborah Eisenberg, Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges, and Gemma Chan on a boat for two weeks? You get a breezy, melancholy, highly improvised film called Let Them All Talk. Soderbergh has taken a turn for the experimental in recent years, working with iPhone cameras (Unsane and High Flying Bird) or turning a tv show into an interactive app (Mosaic). Here, he uses Eisenberg’s story outline, but lets his actors improvise and freewheel through their scenes. There may be more “ums” and “ahs” than you’re accustomed to hearing, but the film will have you under its strange spell soon enough.
Acclaimed author Alice Hughes (Meryl Streep) is a prickly and precise writer living in New York. Her agent, Karen (Gemma Chan), informs her that she has won a prestigious award and has been invited to a ceremony in England. Knowing Hughes will refuse to fly, Karen gives her the option of traveling to England by ship if she gives a talk during the voyage. Much like Rugrats in Paris, Hughes accepts as long as she can bring a few guests. She invites her estranged college friends, played by Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen, and her nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges). Karen also secretly boards the ship, hoping to find that her client is working on a sequel to her bestseller.
What follows is a film that feels like it could go in any direction, good or bad, but continues to sail forward on the strength of its players. Lucas Hedges is especially well suited to the task, giving a nervous, sad performance as he bounces off these four actresses with ease. It’s almost impossible to describe how this film feels, natural but cold, moving haltingly but always towards the next story beat. Though there is a plot, of course, the best moments come from the actors being paired off. Tyler flirts with Karen, who wants to use him to spy on Alice. Roberta (Bergen) and Susan (Wiest) play chess. Alice meets a fellow author and continually avoids the guests she demanded she could bring, avoiding her past sins as well. Eisenberg’s script has so many character details that the film seems designed for repeat viewing.
I’ve not seen as many Soderbergh films as I should have, but I’m loving his continued attempts at reworking what movies can be. Let Them All Talk could be the future of cinema in many ways, as artists try to go for smaller scale projects in direct contrast to the loud superhero tanks clogging the multiplexes. As long as burgeoning streaming platforms keep giving auteurs random sums of money to make whatever they want, I’ll be happy.
Let Them All Talk
Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Available to stream on HBO Max starting 12/10