“Oh God, there must be a better way to describe things, to arrange words in a new way, to use words to take you to a place beyond words. There must be.” — Meryl Streep’s Alice in “Let Them All Talk.”
Steven Soderbergh has made the best Woody Allen film in years with “Let Them All Talk,” a dryly observational small masterpiece featuring mostly privileged, mostly white, mostly self-absorbed characters, including a brilliant and narcissistic writer who considers everybody and everything as potential material first and actual human beings second.
Since bursting on the scene with the groundbreaking “Sex, Lies & Videotape” in 1989, Soderbergh has been one of the most prolific and versatile filmmakers of his generation, from prestige projects such as “Traffic” and “Contagion” to mainstream fare such as the “Oceans” franchise and “Magic Mike,” to experimental projects, e.g., “Schizopolis” and “Unsane,” and he once again hits the cutting edge with “Let Them All Talk.” His newest film was shot in just two weeks aboard the Queen Mary 2 luxury cruise liner as it sailed from Manhattan to Southampton, England, with Soderbergh reportedly acting as essentially a one-man crew, operating a state-of-the-art RED Komodo digital camera and using natural light while encouraging the enormously talented ensemble cast to improv freely. The result is one of the smartest, funniest and most visually captivating movies of the year.
Meryl Streep effortlessly knocks it out of the park as an acclaimed novelist named Alice Hughes who has been awarded the prestigious Footling Prize (what a great name for this fictional honor), an honor so special they don’t even give it out every year, as Alice will remind anyone who’s even half-listening. The ceremony will be in England but Alice refuses to fly, so her literary agency funds a trans-Atlantic crossing via the Queen Mary 2, with Alice bringing along three guests: her estranged best friends from college, Susan (Dianne Wiest) and Roberta (Candice Bergen), and Alice’s college student nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges), the closest thing she has to a son. Also onboard, unbeknownst to Alice: the ambitiously conniving Karen (Gemma Chan), who has succeeded Alice’s recently retired longtime agent and is on a mission to determine if Alice’s current project will be the long-awaited and potentially quite lucrative sequel to Alice’s most successful work, “You Always/You Never,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a movie and a miniseries.
With a jazz-infused score that sounds like something from a 1970s thriller setting the beat, Soderbergh’s camera seamlessly captures the cruise ship experience (we often get glimpses of the behind-the-scenes machinations of the crew at work) as Alice reconnects with Susan, a wise and gentle soul who works as an advocate for incarcerated women in Seattle, and Roberta, a blunt-speaking divorcee who favors garish outfits and works for a Victoria’s Secret knockoff store in Dallas and is on the hunt for a man of a certain age and financial standing. Meanwhile, the earnest and naïve Tyler spends every possible moment hanging out with Karen, as he has mistaken her interest in Alice’s next project for an interest in him.
We also meet two intriguing fellow passengers: celebrity author Kelvin Krantz (Dan Algrant in a wonderfully effective, low-key performance), who cranks out mega-selling, movie-material mystery novels twice a year, and an unnamed, mysterious and dapper fellow (John Douglas Thompson) who is seen exiting Alice’s cabin early every morning. (When Tyler questions Alice about this man, she cryptically replies he’s the only thing that keeps her going.)
Nearly everyone has an agenda, some more secretive than others. Alice wants to reconnect with her oldest and dearest friends. Roberta wants Alice to admit she based the lead character in “You Always/You Never” on Roberta’s experiences. Susan hopes old grievances will be forgiven and forgotten. Tyler wants to study his aunt and her friends, as he believes they’re the last great pre-tech generation. The dialogue crackles with tense exchanges and pithy asides, with the veteran actors at the top of their game and the younger cast members returning every volley with equal aplomb. There are moments of pure dramatic/comedic gold, as when Susan calls out her friends for acting like children while simultaneously issuing a brutal takedown of Elon Musk. Whether scripted or improvised, it’s one of the choice moments in any film of 2020. “Let Them All Talk,” indeed. Please let them all talk for as long as they desire.