Acclaimed and renowned filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has always been one of the most versatile filmmakers working today, a filmmaker that bounces back and forth between studio projects to smaller indie films, and each of his films always have a wide range of different subjects and filmmaking styles, and one thing is for certain–each film he always embarks on will always be visually and technically fascinating.
That said, Soderbergh hasn’t made a true masterpiece in 11 years, since his 2009 masterpiece “The Girlfriend Experience” and he hasn’t made an Oscar caliber film in 20 years with his 2000 masterpiece “Traffic” which also won him his first and only Best Director Oscar. He has made nearly 20 films since “Traffic,” and 10 since “The Girlfriend Experience”–both of those films made my top ten lists in their given years. And as expected each of these films have ranged from small-budget indie films, some awful, like “Full Frontal,” and others, like rthe superb “Bubble” and “The Girlfriend Experience” which were the highlight of his career. I would like to sit down and eventually do a complete Soderbergh retrospective, but it would take an enormous amount of time to sit down, rate, rank, and write each film.
His latest work, “Let Them All Talk” is the first of the directors’ reported projects to be released with HBO Max, a fairly new streaming service that is already raising questions in how we watch cinema in the future. HBO Max also plans on releasing his next film “No Sudden Move” at some point next year that was shot in Detroit during the Fall. On the surface, if Soderbergh’s film wasn’t in the credits for “Let Them All Talk,” you would think you were watching a Hollywood comedy from a studio director, due to the big-budget of the setting on a cruise ship and the star power of the highly acclaimed Meryl Streep. “Let Them All Talk” is perhaps Soderbergh’s most accessible and commercially driven film since “Magic Mike”: However, with its meticulous direction, impeccable staging, rich compositions, stylish camera work, and some solid performances and impressive writing, “Let Them All Talk” is one of Soderbergh’s better films that have been released in the last 10 years. I would rank it up there with his psychological-thriller “Unsane” that was shot with an i-phone that was serviceable to the film’s maddening atmosphere.
Clocking in at just under 2 hours (about 113 minutes), the film is highly engaging and vastly amusing, with a stronger first half, and a more melodramatic last few final scenes that are earned, but it felt like it needed to earn just a little bit more with its conclusion to end more fully satisfying. You can certainly sense when the film loses its momentum. Once the characters get off the ship, you are so engaged with so many of the exchanges and subplots occurring, that the film’s unpredictable finale feels more sudden and not quite as earned. Although the final scene involving Meryl Streep is one of the best scenes in the film, if not of the year.
What works for “Let Them All Talk” is that Soderbergh has the ability to make just about any material impressive with his stellar craftsmanship, he often leaves Hollywood and New York and ventures out and explores different regions and different settings for each of his films, focusing both on poor, working class, and upper class people, and in this film he merges both classes of people and Soderbergh’s efforts are always refreshing.
The films ecstatic energy, rich locales and setting of the luxurious ship cruise will invite comparisons to Soderbergh’s “Ocean” movies, which is Soderbergh’s most commercially successful films that was a remake of the Hollywood 1960 in which Soderberg turned into a franchise that was followed with two sequels (that he also directed) and a spin-off that included in all-female cast titled “Ocean’s 8” (which he was credited as Executive Producer).
“Let Them All Talk,” dropped on HBO Max over the weekend, it’s a deceptively fun movie on the outside, but it becomes deeper and more resonant as the film progresses on. As one would expect, Soderbergh always holds deep layers and rich subtext in each of his films in which something seems ordinary or maudlin ends up becoming more sophisticated and layered. Being shot on an actual cruise line of the Queen Mary 2 and compromised with some improvisational scenes that never undermines the writing of Deborah Eisenbergh.
The intimately inviting story centers on three estranged friends reuniting on a cruise line, whose lives have taken unpredictable paths. There’s Alice, a best-selling author who has won Pulti-Prize awards for her work and is a highly acclaimed writer. She is deeply concerned with completing her next novel in which she fails to reveal any details, even to her literary agent Karen (a superb Gemma Chan). Once she is informed she will be awarded a prestigious literary award in England, she ends up convincing her close friends from her youth to take the Queen Mary 2 across the ocean to join her–old friends Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest) accompany her along with her supportive nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges–In his most natural performance since “Manchester by the Sea”).
It’s been nearly two decades since Alice wrote her first best-selling novel “You Always/You Never”, it was the book that generated her traction and one that is universally read and appreciated by the public. It is also one in which Karen hopes she is writing a sequel to. Without even Alice knowing and in desperation, Karen ends up sneaking on the plane, and deliberately encountering Tyler in hopes of him updating her information on work because the publisher she represents is putting high pressure on the progress and development of Alice’s next work. Some of the best exchanges and performances in the film are generated from Hedges and Chan, whose comedy of errors and screwball set-up ends up becoming very charming, endearing, and finally resonant as they open up to each other despite their age gap.
There is a wise maturity of the film where Soderbegh and Eisenberg prevent “Let Them All Talk” from slipping into just a star ride for Streep, while her scenes are also rich, the time we spend with Hedges and Chan are some of the most emotive material Soderbergh has ever staged, which shows Soderbergh is now becoming less of a cold director and more of an empathetic one. Susan and Roberta are also given some compelling character depth. Susan is an advocate and works for a non-profit to reform criminal justice and stop unfair incarceration on Seattle woman who doesn’t seem to care that Alice uses her friendship as inspiration for her acclaimed novel; while Roberta is betrayed by it, who feels she was invited on the cruise so Alice can get more details out of her life for her next book. There is a comical gag in the film where Alice always wants to get a drink with Roberta, who always comes up with excuses. Susan has been beaten down in life, who was crushed by her last divorce, feels past her prime, and works a dead-end retail job at a clothing department store. Bergen also gives an outstanding performance here, and each of her exchanges and confrontations resonate with much complexity and nuance. Her performance is the performance of the film, and deserves some Oscar consideration for Best Supporting Actress.
As expected, the film triumphs on a technical and visual level. While many of the character exchanges and conversations are impressive, Soderbergh elevates these scenes with the ravishing backdrop of the Queen Mary with the Atlantic Ocean in the background, along with some innovative angles and lenses that further implement the psychology of what these characters are enduring. As he always does, Soderbergh uses the pseudonym of Peter Andrews, and he lenses the cinematic beauty of the Queen Mary 2 and finds great joy as these characters navigate around the ship as follow them through bars, corridors, dance floors, decks, restaurants, and even a comical moment where Alice wonders off towards uncharted areas of the ship that are closed off to the public. Soderbergh also edited the film and used the pseudonym of Mary Ann Bernard. Soderbergh truly is a jack of all trades. There is no surprise that the cinematic techniques in the film are impressive and visually pleasing.
But Soderbergh should be praised for his character depths and storytelling here, he holds a fondness for his characters here echo the work of a director like Sofia Coppola and Alexander Payne. While the film works more effectively processing as a collection of individual scenes, than as a whole piece, there’s still something deeply compelling, even memorable about the film. As the unusual setting occurs, it shifts from light-comedy to some raw melodrama during the third act. Soderbergh is a superb storyteller as this film becomes a comedic catharsis on friendship and regret. With the notable film of the small indie film titled “Fourteen,” Radha Blank’s “The Fourty-Year-Old-Version,” and now “Let Them All Talk,”2020 appears to be the year where cinema dives deeply about friendships and life’s disappointments. While the film may not be as artful or as fully realized as some of Soderbergh’s others–it really is a simple movie that does become highly engaging–several characterizations and dialogue passages stand out as they transcend into impressive sonatas that resonate well past the credits roll.