By Erica Abeel
The film feels amateurish in the most complimentary Stendhalian sense: created in a spirit of play, rather than a sweaty effort to advance a studio agenda.
Let Them All Talk, directed by Steven Soderbergh. Streaming on HBO MAX
Why not start with the marvel that is Steven Soderbergh? The mind-blowing versatility that ranges from his art film debut Sex, Lies and Videotape, to the Oceans blockbusters, to agitprop Erin Brockovich, to TV series Traffic and The Knick, to the prescient thriller Contagion, etc. And – Soderbergh sometimes plays all the parts, like a one-man orchestra, often under a pseudonym: cinematographer, producer, editor, writer, director – maybe hairdresser, for all we know. And the man is nice, forthcoming, an interviewer’s dream (a former editor complained that my piece about the film version of The Girlfriend Experience sounded fanzine-y, which is apparently not cool). Some years ago Soderbergh “retired” from filmmaking, citing how badly studios treat directors: “It’s become absolutely horrible the way the people with the money decide they can fart in the kitchen, to put it bluntly.” Happily for us, retirement was a brief sabbatical.
Soderbergh’s latest film Let Them All Talk (HBOMax) is a delightful improvisation, tossed-off and je m’en foutiste in tone – if not in actual execution – that tackles such issues as the wages of success, the fragility of friendship, and mortality. The film feels amateurish in the most complimentary Stendhalian sense: created in a spirit of play, rather than a sweaty effort to advance a studio agenda. It stars Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges – and, at her grandest, the Queen Mary 2, where most of the story is filmed. For the script Soderbergh tapped Deborah Eisenberg, a writer of chilly short stories that pit creatives against money men (which may explain her appeal for Soderbergh) and flaunt a lack of affect. Fortunately, in Let Them All Talk angst of many flavors seeps through.
The setup is this: Alice Hughes, a Pulitzer-winning novelist, is invited to London to accept a prestigious literary prize. Since she can’t fly (for reasons that later u-end the plot), her ambitious new agent (Gemma Chan, Crazy Rich Asians) convinces Cunard to lodge the esteemed writer in their finest stateroom in exchange for a lecture she’ll deliver on board. Alice insists on being accompanied by her two 70-something oldest friends from college, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest).
Also of the party is Alice’s cherished nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges, a revelation), tasked with keeping the ladies entertained. They’ll have supper together, Alice announces, but otherwise she’ll be occupied writing. Alice’s agent slips on board as a kind of high-end stowaway, hoping to spy on her client and determine whether she’s working on the sequel to her best-selling novel. She’s not especially encouraged by Alice’s description of her process as “trying to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time.”
Candice Bergen’s Roberta may have agreed to the voyage and a chance to “reconnect” with her old college friends but, in fact, she’s angry as hell. Roberta’s convinced that the book that made Alice’s fortune cannibalized her, Roberta’s, own life — including marital infidelities — and precipitated her divorce. Roberta ended up destitute and pays the rent by hawking Victoria’s Secret–type lingerie and answering to a snotty 20-something boss. She hits Queen Mary’s cozy bars, on the prowl for an affluent senior with no criminal record. Not only does she want to settle accounts with Alice for “ruining” her life – she suspects her old classmate invited her along to annex her for the sequel.
Tyler unwisely hits on Alice’s age-inappropriate literary agent — who’s just been dumped by a hedgie who had suggested she freeze her eggs. But she’s only interested in info about the progress of his aunt’s novel. Meanwhile, Dianne Wiest’s Susan reminisces about her wild and raunchy youth and acts as a buffer zone between Roberta and ever-evasive Alice. She’s the one character capable of taking the long view: “We’ve lived most of our lives,” she says to Roberta. “Elon Musk has sent satellites into the sky that look like stars. We’re among the last to have seen the stars, not Elon Musk’s satellites.” When it comes to conveying plaintive forbearance, Wiest is perfect, an actress to delight Chekhov.
It’s immensely entertaining to watch these skilled performers wing it. You’re right in there with them as they feel their way into speech. We knew Streep could do improv in her sleep — but Lucas Hedges as Tyler is the revelation here, superbly bumbling his way to something semicoherent. These performances are as far from machine-made as you get.
The film also mines the familiar but ever rich vein of writerly appropriation and the issue of who “owns” material. Can people patent their own lives? Yes, you sympathize with Roberta’s indignation over getting entrapped in Alice’s plot — yet anyone who hangs around a writer does so at their own peril. After all, where else do novelists find their stories if not from people they know, have known, know about? When fiction writers gamely tackle subjects not in their wheelhouse, they often stumble (think John Updike’s The Coup about sub-Saharan Africa). So viewer sympathy migrates toward Alice, even at her most insufferable and pretentious; even when she insists, flashing the trademark Streep smile, “all the characters are actually me.”
But I have yet to mention what’s perhaps the most provocative aspect of Let Them All Talk: it centers on 70-something women who are allowed to look 70. Not the 70 of “this is what 70 looks like” courtesy of, say, a Michelle Pfeiffer, still improbably and youthfully beautiful in French Exit. No — real 70. And, more provocative yet, the ultimate deal-breaker and F-bomb in Hollywood: the actresses are allowed to be fat. Candice Bergen has publicly stated she enjoys eating and doesn’t give a damn. And here she is as Roberta … face of a gourmand, unapologetically large. Roberta waddles. Wiest ambles about like a house on wheels. And you know? So what??
In a recent interview Cary Mulligan noted that actresses continue to be judged by conventional (read male) standards of beauty. Let Them All Talk flips the bird at that shibboleth and, well, it’s liberating to see. I quickly adjusted to the sight of a rotund, un-glam Candice Bergen and instead focused on Roberta’s story of a woman from a generation who, on losing a husband, loses her economic foothold. One she’s unlikely to regain. Bergen has never been better; her comic timing kills it.
The Meryl issue defies understanding: Streep looks ageless — and yet — have you noticed? — as an actor her body fails to project. Particularly in this film, where she’s all scarfed up. This is not a great thing for a performer. Facial closeups are paramount in cinema, of course, but the body is part of an actor’s expressive arsenal. Few who’ve seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will soon forget Brad Pitt’s abs. Isabelle Huppert’s electric thinness is in sync with her caustic manner.
But back to Bergen and Wiest: I think their girth serves their characters in Let Them All Talk, speaks to a lifetime of struggle and missteps, choices or compulsions; brings them into the frame of normal looking people, rather than movie stars. Most important, they appear comfortable in their bodies. As usual, Soderbergh pushes the envelope, extending – and celebrating — the way women are permitted to look onscreen.
Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her most recent novel Wild Girls, about three women rebels of the ’50s, was an Oprah Magazine pick. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and national publications. A former dancer, when not writing she’s in a Pilates class or at the barre. Her new novel, The Commune, will be published by Adelaide Books in September 2021.