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Let Them All Talk: Film Review

Let Them All Talk serves as a wonderful showpiece for a triumvirate of splendid actresses and the young performers in their wake.

When I watched Let Them All Talk, I had not known that the film was basically a giant piece of improvisation. Here’s the pitch: a New York author is scheduled to receive an award in the UK, and, out of reluctance towards flying, she takes a cruise across the Atlantic and brings two friends and her nephew along for the ride. Using this bare bone plot synapsis, director Steven Soderbergh (Contagion) trusted his tremendous team of performers to make magic over the course of an actual two-week transatlantic cruise. And what actors he has assembled for himself from two generations, Meryl Streep (The Prom), Candice Bergen (Miss Congeniality), and Dianne Wiest (Hannah and Her Sisters) in the older, Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) and Gemma Chan (Humans) the younger.

An opening scene between Streep and Chan sees the stakes set with some of the most elegant exposition I can recall. Who could have guessed the best way to dump a whole bunch of information on an audience was to simply trust two immensely talented actors to establish a few facts through their performances? It’s nice to see Chan – largely wasted in popular stuff like Captain Marvel and Crazy Rich Asians – get the chance to show her skills. In what could be a one-note role (a young literary agent who follows her client on her trip to find out if she’s writing a sequel to her greatest hit), Chan manages to find notes of real humanity. Her flirtation with that author’s nephew (Hedges) feels less the product of a nefarious operator and more a real person who both wants to do her job and learn what she can from him, but also the actions of someone who wants a human connection on a vessel full of older couples.

As I watched the film, I had the distinct impression that Soderbergh’s direction must have been very loose, because I simply could not recall anyone ever stepping on one of Streep’s big actorly moments as Lucas Hedges was clearly doing. Most directors – for obvious reasons – simply stick the camera on Streep and let her go during big moments. It seemed to me a sign of respect between the two that Hedges would cut Streep off and interrupt just as she seemed to be hitting her groove, and that Streep would allow it. It gives their relationship an important, realistic edge – real people talk over one another and interrupt, especially when there is a bond of mutual affection. There is a warmth between the performers that permeates their relationship.  As someone who looks at Lucas Hedges as one of the best young naturalistic actors in the game, I can’t help but feel happy to see him get the apparent blessing, and respect, of Streep.

loud and clear reviews let them all talk hbo max
Lucas Hedges and Meryl Streep in Let Them All Talk (HBO Max)

And I’ve barely mentioned Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest thus far, but damn. Both Bergen and Wiest have spent so much of the last few decades in soulless reboots of past TV glories or shunted into grandmotherly roles. It’s such a joy to see both given the leeway to simply go for it and act again. Bergen, in particular, seems to elevate her game under Soderbergh’s loose hand. As the least successful of the triumvirate of lapsed friends, Bergen spends her evenings prowling the ship’s bars for eligible suitors when she isn’t lamenting her unfulfilling professional retail career. Bergen’s frustration over private details of her own life reflected in her friend’s work gives a loose format for the women to generate tension some dramatic tension.

That Bergen manages to avoid cliché in the role and find real humanity is a tribute to her immense talent – it’s one of the year’s most vibrant performances.  Wiest, despite being encumbered with the least showy role, brings a wonderfully biting sense of humor to her performance. Her role as the sane mediator between her more hot blooded friends is played naturalistic and honestly – the role is perhaps the trickiest part of the film’s alchemy.

A last act twist feels jarringly out of place, in large part because Soderbergh has let the vibrant, raucous energy of his cast push the film into a more joyous place that the original plot structure might have suggested.  I found the film dragged a bit in the last act as well, but, on the whole, it’s just such a vibrant showpiece for five wonderful performers. As usual, Soderbergh’s willingness to evolve his filmmaking quality results in tremendous art.

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