Let Them All Talk, and Improvise, and We’ll Laugh and Smile

Recently, Steven Soderbergh espoused a desire to spend the rest of his career making genre films starring movie stars. I certainly won’t complain. On the heels of two 2019 ensemble pictures (one with movie stars, one not) that were less than the sum of their parts, he’s gifted us a breezy, delightful, but not slight picture featuring four great actresses improvising and commiserating about their characters’ lives on a quiet cruise across the Atlantic. Meryl Streep is Alice Hughes, an esteemed author who invites two old friends (Dianne Wiest, Candace Bergen) and her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) on a quasi-writer’s retreat to visit the grave of her favorite author Blodwyn Pugh (what a name). The plan is to use her time aboard to crank out a manuscript for her new book whilst catching up with college buddies that have been estranged from her for some time. Tyler is used by a number of them, including a rep for Alice’s publisher (Gemma Chan), to glean information from his aunt or from Roberta (Bergen) who’s at odds with her over the familiar content of her most famous book. It’s all very peppy and easy to watch, enjoyable without succumbing to pandering or perfunctory plot points for the sake of complexity.

This is a film more concerned with the awkward and sometimes tense interactions and relationships between such interesting people, between folks of different generations and career paths. Alice is a self-important eccentric with a secret to hide, Susan (Wiest) is a formerly promiscuous hippie from Seattle with a philosophical bent, and Roberta is a retail worker from Dallas with a chip on her shoulder and money to grub. They’re all very sympathetic in spite of their flaws, in spite of their inability to be straight with one another, and it’s so amusing watching Hedges try to keep up with them, all the while crushing on Chan’s overwhelmed corporate rep and often coming up short. As a Dallasite, I do take issue with the unwavering Hollywood portrayal of Texans as cowboy hat-wearing simpletons, but Soderbergh got the money-grubbing part right. Streep gives her best performance in years, finally getting over the hump of toiling in mediocre films and imbuing the seemingly frivolous Alice with a lonely, melancholy inner self, the source of which we eventually learn before the end comes. What’s so surprising about Let Them All Talk, given Soderbergh’s penchant for dry or wasted affairs of late (High Flying Bird, The Laundromat), is just how funny, naturalistic, AND substantial it manages to be. Perhaps he should let his actors improvise more often.

Grade: B+

Currently streaming on HBO MAX

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