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Cruising for amusing – ‘Let Them All Talk’

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Few filmmakers are as habitually freewheeling as Steven Soderbergh, constantly willing to move in different directions and try new things. He’s unafraid to shift creative gears, trusting in his abilities and the abilities of those around him to make it work – and it usually does.

Take “Let Them All Talk,” his newest offering now available via HBO Max. Shot in a quasi-indie manner, it’s an amiable and chatty dramady that takes place on a trans-Atlantic cruise. The kicker, of course, is that it was filmed during an actual crossing, with all that that entailed. Soderbergh assembled an incredible cast, led by Meryl Streep, and kept it simple, using mostly natural light and minimal equipment to film.

The end result – ostensibly written by noted short story writer Deborah Eisenberg, though much of the dialogue was improvised by the cast – is an extremely watchable, albeit light, story of renewed and new connections. It’s not a film where a lot actually happens, but the people to whom stuff isn’t happening are engaging enough to get you to stick around. A good hang.

Alice Hughes (Streep) is a celebrated novelist who has just been named the winner of a prestigious literary prize. She deeply wants to accept it in person, but the event is in London and she refuses to fly. Her agent Karen (Gemma Chan, “Captain Marvel”) offers up a potential solution – the Queen Mary 2 is making a trans-Atlantic crossing; would Alice be willing to cruise to London?

She accepts, with the caveat that she can bring guests. Said guests are her two best friends from college (though they’re now estranged) – soft-spoken activist Susan (Dianne Wiest, “I Care a Lot”) and the brash, somewhat bitter Roberta (Candice Bergen, TV’s “Murphy Brown”). Also along for the ride is Alice’s nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges, “Waves”), to help provide Alice with whatever assistance she might need.

Unbeknownst to Alice, Karen has also booked a cabin on the trip; her hope is to keep an eye on Alice and perhaps figure out if the mysterious new manuscript is in fact the suspected sequel to Alice’s long-ago bombshell literary success. Karen enlists the aid of Tyler to find out more, though her initial seemingly professional interest does appear to be moving in a more complex direction.

Meanwhile, Roberta is still nursing the wound of believing that Alice’s thinly-fictionalized portrayal of her in the aforementioned literary bombshell was responsible for the destruction of her marriage; it’s a large part of why they’ve been estranged and of why she’s here now.

Over the course of the journey, these three women – longtime friends who have largely lost the thread of their relationship – gradually, gently ease together, toward whatever reconciliation is even still possible after so much has passed between them. And as Tyler learns, his aunt has plenty of secrets – her as-yet-unidentified manuscript is just the tip of the iceberg.

And that’s pretty much that. As I said, not a lot actually happens in “Let Them All Talk,” but when you’re dealing with a group of creatives like this one, it’s much less of an issue. Basically, what Soderbergh has done is bring together a very small and VERY talented group and set them loose on an ocean liner with some basic story guidelines. Basically, he lets them cook.

The danger with going in this sort of outlined/improvised direction is that you can sometimes get in trouble as far as pacing. Movies that adopt this tactic tend to meander, wandering into the general vicinity of the point rather than getting straight to it. For a movie like this, though, the slower speed is a feature rather than a bug. That explicit gradualness is a huge part of the appeal; it really captures the just-off feeling that can come with spending a lot of time with people you’ve only just reconnected with. That combination of extensive interpersonal history and general ignorance regarding the present is well-represented here.

And of course, you have Soderbergh doing Soderbergh stuff. In this case, he’s his own cinematographer (and editor, natch) while relying on whatever the Queen Mary 2 throws at him. Whether you’re talking about extensive work in natural light or interstitial scenes that show the sheer scale of the inner workings of a ship like this – kitchens and laundry rooms feel much less mundane when they’re in service to thousands – or any one of a dozen other DIY-style moves he makes, Soderbergh goes out of his way to present his narrative in a way that reflects the unique cadences of life on a cruise ship.

It’s always nice to see Meryl Streep doing her thing. It’s a wonderfully low-key turn, one driven by a beautifully rendered pretension over an almost-perfectly concealed insecurity. It’s an absolutely effortless performance, yet still a delight to watch. Hedges is charmingly awkward as Tyler, his good-natured gawkiness somewhat softening his angles-and-elbows ungainliness. Chan is great as Karen when she’s given a chance to cook, but she feels somewhat underutilized.

Not as underutilized as Wiest, however, whose character feels largely like a nonentity – more plot device than person. Despite being essentially a contrivance, she does manage to endow Susan with some dimension through sheer presence. Bergen has no such problem, embodying exquisitely a certain type of faded Southern woman, blowsy and embittered. Her simmering resentment gives the dynamic real color.

“Let Them All Talk” isn’t going to blow your hair back. It’s not big or broad; there’s nothing really exciting or heavy about it. And yet, you may well find yourself compelled to keep watching, your attention captured by the quiet energy and charming earnestness of performers and filmmaker alike.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 14 December 2020 15:34

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