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Movie Review – Let Them All Talk
Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh is known for his broad range and eclectic tastes; in both subject matter and dramatic form (see Mosaic 2018). Here he takes on an intimate dramedy, shot almost entirely on a Queen Mary 2 Atlantic crossing --pre-pandemic (2019). Soderbergh loves documentary filmmaking and true to form, many Ship passengers weren’t even aware that a movie was being filmed while they were aboard.
Meryl Streep plays Alice Hughes, a famous, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, who, late in her career, is dealing with writer’s block. Both her publisher and agent Karen (Gemma Chen) are fretting. Karen, who was recently assigned to Alice, because her longtime agent retired, hopes that Alice is writing a sequel to one of her famous earlier books. But Alice, notoriously secretive about her work won’t divulge the subject matter of the novel she is working on. Although this is true to character, it is extra frustrating because Karen feels time is running out.
Alice has to travel to England for a prestigious literary prize, but cannot fly, for various reasons and decides to travel via ship. She invites two long lost college chums, Susan (Dianne Wiest) and Roberta (Candice Bergen) as well as her beloved nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges) for caretaking and companion purposes. Unbeknownst to Alice, Karen is also aboard. Curious and concerned about Alice’s writing progress, she strategically befriends Tyler in hopes of getting more information.
The premise feels contrived, and Alice’s motivation for inviting her long-lost friends remains ambiguous. But the plot, and the set-up soon become unimportant, as the film unfolds in a series of exquisite, well written, and well-acted scenes by this crackerjack ensemble.
This is one of Streep’s most subtle performances in years. Her Alice is regal, superior, aloof, sometimes vulnerable--but very human. She never quite becomes likeable, but then again, she is not unlikeable. Bergen playing Roberta, is an embittered, slightly desperate senior citizen who not only still has to work, but must work selling lingerie to rude, customers under a much younger boss. Donning a cowboy hat (she lives in Dallas) she is certain her life was the inspiration for Alice’s greatest novel. She not only feels cheated financially but is resentful because she blames the book for her divorce. Furthermore, she is convinced the only reason Alice invited her on the cruise is to prod her for details of her sad life post-divorce, for a possible book sequel. Still, she certainly cannot afford to pass up a free vacation and spends most of the crossing inventing excuses so she doesn’t have to spend time alone with Alice, who keeps asking her to. Bergen is a droll delight.
Lucas Hedges, still only in his 20′s has a knack for picking, intelligent good projects. Let’s hope this continues. Everyone in the cast is excellent, including Dan Algrant in a terrific performance as a very successful mystery novelist, who is charming and completely approachable, unlike the haughty Alice.
Screenwriter Deborah Eisenberg is a famed shorty story writer, who has won the O Henry Prize an impressive six times, for stories that are often called ambiguous and elusive. She is no less elusive here, and the movie often feels plot anemic, but full of weighty vignettes from complicated characters, who never quite reveal enough. It is what is unsaid and unknown that makes this film so interesting. Because of this, I cannot recommend it for everyone, even though I liked the film very much. It may prove too obscure and tepid for many tastes. Conversely, I feel like I could watch it ten times, even if many questions go unanswered, and never tire of it: as it is so rich and full.
Now Streaming on HBO MAX