Combustible Celluloid
With: Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Lucas Hedges, Dianne Wiest, Gemma Chan
Written by: Deborah Eisenberg
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 113
Date: 12/10/2020

Let Them All Talk (2020)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Schmooze Ship

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Steven Soderbergh's Let Them All Talk may be a movie intended more for readers of The New Yorker than for non-readers of The New Yorker, but it's also a movie of great intuition as it explores the various kinds of emotional guards and shields that people raise.

Debuting Thursday, December 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 regularly works an entire year on just one of them. Yet we learn that Let Them All Talk was mostly improvised by its talented cast of five, working from Eisenberg's "blueprint." It's an odd, fascinating paradox.

Alice is an acclaimed, noted author, already awarded 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 instead.

Alice agrees, but only if she can bring guests. She chooses two old friends, whom she hasn't seen in years: the sweet, soft-spoken Susan (Dianne Wiest), and the brash Texas divorcee Barbara (Candice Bergen).

Alice also takes along 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 hopes 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 for her. He develops a crush on Karen, and gamely agrees. Meanwhile, Barbara is husband-hunting, and nursing a longtime grudge; she believes that Alice's first novel was based on her, and subsequently destroyed her life.

Then, Alice is perturbed by the presence of another author, a massively successful, world-famous, and 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.

Rather, she has foisted 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 here. 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 all fall into this atmosphere of intelligent improv as if they were born to it.

Director Soderbergh is a filmmaker who is up for anything, making classic, comfy thrillers and Oscar-winners, and 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 it seems to lack the depth and texture that a normal production would have, but Soderbergh's framing and pacing are spot-on; his camera frequently seems to be parked a little lower or a little 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 actual balance; it wraps things up a bit too neatly, a most un-Eisenberg thing to do. But until then, its contrast between artistic approaches and temperaments, between hiding and revealing, makes for a most amusing, engaging experience.

Movies Unlimtied