Steven Soderbergh’s “Let Them All Talk” may be of prime interest to readers of The New Yorker, but it’s also a movie of great intuition as it explores the wide variety of humans’ emotional guards and shields.
Debuting Dec. 10 on HBO Max, the movie sports the first screenwriting credit by the great short story author Deborah Eisenberg, and it’s not too much of a stretch to guess that the main character Alice Hughes (Meryl Streep) is at least partly based on her.
Eisenberg’s bemused stories are neatly layered and detailed, nearly novelistic, and it is said that she works an entire year on just one. Yet “Let Them All Talk” was mostly improvised by a talented cast of five, working from Eisenberg’s blueprint. It’s an odd, fascinating paradox.
Alice is an acclaimed, noted author with a Pulitzer. She’s up for a new award, the “Footling” prize, in the U.K. But she can’t fly, so her agent Karen (Gemma Chan) — a longtime assistant freshly promoted — offers to put her on a ship for a transatlantic crossing.
Alice agrees, but only if she can bring guests. She chooses two old friends, whom she hasn’t seen in years: sweet, soft-spoken Susan (Dianne Wiest), and brash Texas divorcee Barbara (Candice Bergen).
Alice also takes her devoted but seemingly aimless nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges). He acts as a go-between for his aunt, who intends to stick to a strict writing schedule, and Karen, who has secretly joined the travelers in the hope of getting a sense of what the new novel will be.
Karen invites Tyler for a drink and asks him, in so many words, to spy on Alice. He develops a crush on Karen, and gamely agrees. Meanwhile, Barbara is husband-hunting, and nursing a longtime grudge; she believes Alice’s first novel was based on her, subsequently destroying her life.
Alice is perturbed by the presence of another author, a successful, world-famous, prolific mystery writer, on board the ship. Barbara and Susan are gushing fans, and Alice can’t imagine why anyone would bother with such pedestrian prose.
She foists an obscure masterpiece — “Realm of the Owl” by Blodwyn Pugh (which certainly sounds like an Eisenberg creation) — on her friends to read, accompanied by a planned visit to Pugh’s grave once they reach their destination.
Streep knocks another one out of the park with her performance. Alice is extremely meticulous, and everything must be prearranged. Her mannered way of speaking can be a bit precious (“When did she start talking like that?” Susan asks), but when she opens up in a crucial scene toward the end, it’s pure Streep magic.
The other four are just as fine, and even though they seem to embody different performing styles, they fall into the atmosphere of intelligent improv as if they were born to it.
Soderbergh is a filmmaker up for anything — making classic, comfy thrillers and Oscar-winners, then brushing up against the cutting edge with bold experiments in form and distribution.
He apparently shot “Let Them All Talk” on a real ship (The Queen Mary 2), in just two weeks, with lightweight digital camera equipment.
The movie looks a little wan, and seems to lack the depth and texture of a typical production, but Soderbergh’s framing and pacing are spot-on; his camera frequently seems to be parked a little lower or a higher than we might expect, giving the talky drama a slightly tense, off-balance feel.
However, the movie steps wrong when it tries to achieve balance. It wraps things up a bit too neatly, a most un-Eisenberg thing to do. Until then, its contrast between artistic approaches and temperaments, between hiding and revealing, makes for a most amusing, engaging experience.
Let Them All Talk
Starring: Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Lucas Hedges, Dianne Wiest, Gemma Chan
Written by: Deborah Eisenberg
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes