Let Them All Talk (HBO Max, 12.10) is a smart, reasonably engrossing, better-than-mezzo-mezzo character study that largely takes place aboard the Queen Mary 2 during an Atlantic crossing.
It’s primarily about Alice, a moderately famous, sternly self-regarding novelist (Meryl Streep) and her somewhat brittle relationship with two old college friends, Susan and Roberta (Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen), whom she’s invited along on a New York-to-Southhampton voyage, courtesy of her publisher.
Also tagging along are Tyler (Lucas Hedges), Alice’s 20something nephew, and Karen (Gemma Chan), an anxious book editor whom Tyler takes an unfortunate shine to.
Also aboard is a David Baldacci-like airport novelist (Dan Algrant) whose books Roberta and Susan adore, and who’s far more engaging and emotionally secure than Alice any day of the week.
Working from a script by Deborah Eisenberg and literally shot during a seven-day crossing in 2019, Let Them All Talk features Soderbergh in standard three-hat mode — director, cinematographer (as Peter Andrews) and editor. All I can say without spoiling is that he manages to keep things sharp, interesting and slicey-dicey for the most part. Streep is playing an aloof, mostly unlikable character, Hedges a somewhat gullible one, and Algrant the most amiable.
But Bergen’s Roberta, who’s fallen upon difficult economic times due to a divorce, is the most interesting character by far. It affords Bergen an opportunity to give her best performance in I don’t know how many years. Since Gandhi or even Carnal Knowledge?
Roberta is a frustrated boomer-aged woman who works in lingerie retail and who wants more money in her life. Alas, she hasn’t any economic opportunities to speak of and hasn’t a prayer of landing a rich boyfriend or husband because she’s “old meat” (all the eligible 60something guys, it seems, have 20something girlfriends) and far from svelte. And yet she’s on her game at all times, attuned and thinking and assessing. Plus she has a testy, unresolved relationship with Alice, who years ago used Rebecca’s ruptured marriage as raw material for her biggest-selling book, “You Always/You Never.”
And then her big opportunity comes when something happens that I can’t disclose, and Roberta…let’s just say her life takes a potential turn for the better.
I’m presuming that Let Them All Talk is regarded as a theatrical feature that had to accept an HBO Max debut because of the pandemic, and therefore Oscar-qualifying. If so, Bergen is definitely a Best Supporting Actress nominee waiting to happen. I just wish she’d somehow held onto her Murphy Brown-ish appearance. I only know that when she turned up in Warren Beatty‘s Rules Don’t Apply, my first reaction was “wait…who’s that? I know her but I can’t place her.”
I really liked Algrant’s novelist. A very sharp, no bullshit, calmly transactional character. Savvy, frank, classy. Somewhat resentful, Alice looks down her nose at him but he’s a pro with a good gig and no pretensions.
Question: If a book isn’t working out, what kind of writer would wipe it off his/her hard drive and throw away a printed manuscript? Writers don’t do that. They hold onto the material and use it for something else down the road. Sometimes you can find a new way in…nobody throws half-written books away.
Chan has a good scene in which she tells the story of her long engagement suddenly falling apart. And another when Tyler (Hedges) places his emotional cards face up on the table.
Honestly: How could this highly intelligent 20something even fantasize that Chan would be interested in him romantically? He’s supposed to be, what, 24 or 25? And he thinks that a 30something editor whose job is on the line, who’s trying to keep tabs on Alice…he thinks that this woman might be interested in a little trans-Atlantic boning?
“Gray Sea, Cloudy Skies” — posted on 11.25.20: Soderbergh shot Let Them All Talk during an actual QM2 voyage between New York and Southampton, and so he naturally captured the atmosphere and social climate that would immerse any passenger. And in this narrow sense the film is about luxury, reddish rosey colors, flush vibes, first-class cabins, restaurants, workout salons, cafes, cocktail lounges, waiters and bartenders.
And therefore, from a certain perspective, Let Them All Talk seems to be only incidentally about the fact that they’re travelling across the mighty Atlantic Ocean, and the possibility that there are all kinds of meditative or spiritual benefits to be gained from breathing in that sea air and maybe gazing at the whitecaps and waves, and maybe noticing some smaller vessels or whales or dolphins or (let’s use our imagination) an abandoned 20-foot sailboat with a torn sail, or maybe some kind of Robert Redford-like figure on a life raft, waving for help.
Alas, the vibe aboard the QM2 seems to be almost entirely about what people are eating, what they’re drinking, what they’re reading, what they’re wearing and who they envy. And the decor. What happens among the main characters is fascinating and well worth the passage, but from a certain distance the voyage is all about flush comforts and everyone wanting to savor a quasi-Kardashian lifestyle for seven or eight days, and almost nothing about…hello?…an astonishing atmospheric experience called the fucking Atlantic Ocean.
Yes, I realize this is how things are aboard large sea vessels these days. (And probably were in the old days.) If I were ever to cross the Atlantic I would do so Allie Fox-style, aboard some kind of spartan Merchant Marine vessel. And I would spend a lot of time on deck.