Let Them All Talk was released to HBO Max on December 10th, 2020 and produced by Warner Brothers.
It has an excellent screenplay.
It seems ridiculous that I must begin this review by mentioning a benefit in such a stale and wooden format, but there it is. With Netflix circling the drain on Marvel’s superhero fetish, and now with HBO and Warner Brothers teaming up to deal the last death knell to our psyches by bringing us the remainder, I could feel my writerly soul leaving my body. I had had enough of watching what Scorsese termed “carnival rides”. It was a legitimate question of how often we would see films that explored, I don’t know, the human condition? And lo and behold Steven Soderbergh descended upon us and said, “Do not be afraid, for I bring you good tidings and great joy…”
The movie is a love letter to books, writing, and words. Written by Columbia professor Deborah Eisenberg, we are introduced to Alice Hughes (Meryl Streep), who is pressured by her literary agent Karen (Gemma Chan) to give some insight on the progress of her next book. Gossip is stirring around the publishing house that she may once again achieve fame (or fortune, for the house) by writing a sequel to a fan favorite, but Alice seems to have a closer affinity to her Pulitzer winner. This is a capital “L” literature writer, and she will not be budged by the whimsies of her support group. Meanwhile, Karen also encourages her to receive a writer’s award given by writers, and she almost rejects the offer for the transatlantic trip aboard the Queen Mary 2 were it not for the fact that she is allowed to bring guests.
We are introduced to the guests in descending order of class. Susan (Dianne Wiest) sits at the kitchen table of a middle class home and frightens us with her reactions of some betrayal in the family. “This makes me turn violent,” she tells her son, with utmost seriousness that contrasts a lovely and sweet smile. Roberta (Candice Bergen) revels in a “no fucks given” existence, working customer service selling lingerie and clearly despising every second of it. Her manager, some thirty, forty (or fifty?) years her junior, does not seem to know how to read emails. Roberta relishes telling her she is off for two weeks. She even emailed the itinerary! Finally, Tyler (Lucas Hedges) is Alice’s close nephew, a young college graduate just starting out, a member of the millennial underclass talking in a dive bar with his friends about the prospect of trying to provide entertainment to these mature women before the ship lands in Europe.
Soderbergh’s aesthetic vision reminds us of the subtle glamor of Ocean’s 11. The tangy oranges of the incandescent lights aboard the Queen Mary 2 pair with cool blues of dusk and dawn shots of the liner in the Atlantic, the sounds of the wake a soothing reminder rather than a raucous nautical adventure. Let Them All Talk is a slow vessel with only slight turns. Soderbergh’s challenge of tight corridors and wide lighting conditions seems child’s play to the director, who somehow manages to bring the ship into the realm of mystical journey rather than acknowledge it for what it is: a boat. The result is an austere direction, which gives space and breath to the real players of the show: the characters and the writing. We never have to worry about the coronavirus here.
When the four meet in a gorgeous main dining room for the first time, the results are stilted at best. The three ladies have been estranged for decades since their time in college. Susan and Roberta find Alice’s mannerisms much changed, as they watch her pursue some turn of phrase that only she can hear. Tyler, in filial piety, is rendered mute.
The film then turns into a strange detective story on all counts, with Tyler hired on by multiple women to do their bidding. Roberta, desperate for cash, is attempting to find a suitable man to hang onto when they land. She’s gold digging, and Tyler’s charged with doing background research to make sure they are not felons. One particular shot has us watching the two from behind a laptop. “Well,” Roberta says, “He was acquitted.”
And Karen, it seems, has snuck onto the boat herself! Pressured by her publishing company to get results. She enlists the young Tyler to try and dig up any report on how the manuscript is going. He seems willing to assist the beautiful Karen the minute he lays eyes on her.
The manuscript, like so much aboard the Queen Mary 2, is not going well. One of the incredible features of Eisenberg’s script is the great dance each character does with their desires, and how few of the words they choose seem to arrive just right. We soon realize that Alice has tremendous writer’s block, and has descended into some introverted psychosis where her phrases mean more to her than to her interlocutors. Roberta seems under the impression that Alice’s most famous novel is about her, while Susan refuses to support her on her quest to personal identify and define her life by something that happened decades ago. And Tyler, try as he might, seems to learn more about Karen’s mid-life crisis than Alice’s writing one. We are revealed character dilemmas in replacement of plot progression, which in a way pushes the film past typical detective work and eventually transcends it to something else entirely.
Eventually, the writing does allow catharsis, and when it does it is simultaneously biting and sweet. In another dining room meeting, Susan and Roberta spot Kelvin Krantz, a bestselling mystery author who Alice can’t help but respond to with pitying envy. And yet, after Alice’s boring seminar on board the Queen Mary 2, the Q & A session opens up, and we find Kelvin Krantz standing and offering the most lavish praise on her writing technique that has Alice in tears, wilting right there on stage. From everything before leading to that very moment, we feel as though Alice is a pretentious git. But here, as Krantz fumbles in words to explain, we see her the way he does.
Yet there are other moments in which the screenplay is not afraid of showing the darker moments, the kind of moments that adults build throughout their lives and never reconcile. Let Them All Talk is just as much a warning about words as praise of them.
The movie opens with Meryl Streep thinking to herself, meditating on the idea that there must be words, words beyond the typical ones we use, to discuss life as it is lived in the mundane. Let Them All Talk is a reminder that a screenplay can exist as a bedrock, a foundation of good cinema. Each of the women presents themselves using words, biting or otherwise, and the result is a film that lends itself to rewatching. I have not even mentioned strange subplot of poisoning, brought about by Susan’s intense interest in Krantz’s novels. But when combined with those opening words, we realize that Susan’s story may be just getting started. Or when Roberta and Susan play Scrabble. For Roberta, her word is “control”. And Susan?
Anyone who is interested in writing and the power of words is duty-bound to watch Let Them All Talk. Because, unfortunately, good screenplays like this do not surface all that often.