Everything you need to appreciate the sanguine jazz of Steven Soderbergh’s “Let Them All Talk” — a breezy, wistful, semi-improvised comedic drama shot aboard the Queen Mary 2 as the cruise ship crossed from New York to England with more than 2,600 paying customers aboard — can be gleaned from a passage in the New York Times’ recent profile of David Fincher in which Soderbergh remembers how suffocating it was to watch his notoriously obsessive friend do some post-production work on the 2002 thriller “Panic Room”:
“‘David had a laser pointer out,’” Soderbergh winces, “‘and he was circling this one section of a wall in the upper part of the frame, saying that’s a quarter of a stop too bright.’ I had to leave the room. I had to go outside and take some deep breaths, because I thought, ‘Oh, my God — to see like that? All the time? Everywhere? I wouldn’t be able to do it.’”
It’s amusing to picture Soderbergh and Fincher hanging out together for the same reason it was funny to watch Homer Simpson try to befriend Frank Grimes. One of them is the most unfussy and creatively restless director of his generation, and the other crafts films with such immaculate precision that he could make brain surgeons look like a clumsy bunch of kids tearing open their Christmas presents by comparison. One of them reacted to the digital revolution by shooting movies on iPhones and editing them on the train ride home, and the other saw the new technology as the permission he needed to shoot 100 takes of a basic setup. One of them has made five films and a choose-your-own-adventure TV show in the last two calendar years, and the other has made “Mank” (and executive produced a season of “Mindhunter”).
These are a pair of Mozarts without a Salieri between them, but where Soderbergh delights in a little chaos, Fincher demands absolute control. Every creative discipline has room for such different approaches, and it’s safe to say the world will always be full of Soderberghs and Finchers, just as it’s safe to say that they’ll never understand each other. Some people are preoccupied with the shadows, and some people — to paraphrase “Boogie Nights” impresario Jack Horner — are blessed with the ability to accept that there are shadows in life, baby!
But with “Let Them All Talk,” Soderbergh has gone from making movies informed by his “let’s just do it and be legends” ethos to making a movie about the futility of perfection, and the consequences of imposing it on an unruly world. If this gentle and luxuriant floating gabfest isn’t the least bit hostile towards Fincher or anyone else, it’s still a clear shot across the bow at the idea that artists have the final say over how people live with their work.
Steered more by its director’s fetishistic lust for logistical challenges than it is by the loose scriptment that he commissioned author Deborah Eisenberg to write for it, “Let Them All Talk” finds Soderbergh plunging into unknown waters as he scrambles to shoot a feature-length film in the time it takes to sail the Atlantic. Anyone can make a movie where Meryl Streep plays a haughty novelist whose severe exterior hides a fatal self-doubt, but only Soderbergh — taking his rightful place alongside James Cameron, Jean-Luc Godard, and “Speed 2” director Jan de Bont among the ranks of cinema’s pre-eminent cruise ship auteurs — would do it in span of a single week-long crossing with thousands of bored retirees milling about in the background.
Shot in August 2019 and docking on HBO Max at a time when Cunard couldn’t possibly be more desperate for such effective spon-con, Soderbergh’s latest experiment might be the only thing in history that makes being on a cruise ship look like fun (an especially impressive feat in the middle of a pandemic that’s made these floating super-spreader events seem even deadlier than usual).
Streep plays Alice, a Pulitzer-winning yet self-loathingly middlebrow author who — depending on the scenes — comes off as either a more loving Miranda Priestly or a less confident Kay Graham. Harangued by her new book agent Karen (an exquisite Gemma Chan), and invited to receive a prestigious literary award in the U.K., the plane-averse Alice suggests that sailing to the ceremony will afford her the time and focus she needs to finish her much-anticipated manuscript.
Naturally, Alice insists that her literary agency should pay for the voyage, and also for the three people she plans on taking along for the ride: Her semi-estranged friends Susan (Dianne Wiest) and Roberta (Candice Bergen), and her reverent nephew Tyler (a winsome Lucas Hedges, playing the kind of wide-eyed twentysomething who wouldn’t hesitate to spend a week at sea with three septuagenarian women). Unbeknownst to Alice, Karen also sneaks aboard in an effort to keep tabs on her big new client, and starts using the lovestruck Tyler as her secret go-between. And just like that we’re out in open water, bobbing along with a premise that seems like the perfect storm for a slow-motion screwball comedy.
But that’s just not the movie Soderbergh was going to make — not in a phase of his career that’s been defined by unfussy stillness and anti-septic gloss. A casual sense of humor is always percolating under the surface (Bergen is a saucy blast as a rueful, gold-digging Texan, and it’s hard to take any film too seriously that features Dianne Wiest telling someone to “bow down, bitch”), but Alice seems determined to defuse the fun. She announces on the first night that she’ll only socialize at dinner, and plans on spending the rest of the time working in her cabin.
Her guests appear to be fine with that; there’s clearly some long-festering bitterness between them, even if the film’s impromptu dialogue isn’t in a hurry to articulate how Alice caused it with her writing. The ladies are happy to use Tyler as an intermediary, Tyler’s happy to have secret trysts with Karen and make painfully unrequited puppy eyes at the older careerist, and Soderbergh is happy to see if it’s possible to improvise a compelling movie about the power of words.
The Queen Mary 2 is halfway to England before its vague sketch of a story begins to lose steam, and the fun disconnect between Soderbergh and his fastidious (even Fincher-like) heroine starts to feel almost like finger-wagging. Alice, who agonizes over every letter and is beset by self-sabotaging thoughts like “there must be a better place to use words to take you to a place beyond words,” is amusingly infuriated to find that she’s not the only famous author on the ship.
To the giddy delight of her friends, they’re also joined by a Dean Koontz-like mega-author named Kelvin Kranz — a human assembly line of airport literature who pumps out a new book every few months and doesn’t seem all that precious about any of them. He’s played to rumpled perfection by “Greetings from Tim Buckley” director Dan Algrant, and it’s hard to ignore how much the movie is on his side. You’ll like him too, and sometimes at Alice’s expense. She never comes off as a monster, as Streep fringes the character with clear notes of forgiveness and layers her with a degree of secret warmth that we don’t fully understand until a sudden twist snaps everything into view, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Soderbergh doesn’t know what makes someone like her tick.
Alice is Fincher trying to be master and commander of every detail in “Panic Room,” and “Let Them All Talk” is an exasperated Soderbergh begging a tiger to change its stripes and see how much easier life could be if she just loosened up a little, left some room for people to bring some of themselves into her stories, and made peace with the fact that there will always be a vast ocean of difference between an artist’s intention and the way it’s perceived. Alice’s reluctance to budge on that point has cost her some of her closest friendships, and this low-key charmer hits choppy seas whenever it tries to navigate its heroine towards a new understanding.
It’s not as if Soderbergh’s “any port in a storm” mentality needs more support to hold water. Some of us Fincher-brained types might regret that Soderbergh has given up on masterpieces, but the volume and consistency of his post-retirement output speaks for itself. The transcontinental mileage he gets out of shooting aboard the Queen Mary 2 is justification enough to make “Let Them All Talk” the way he did, as everything about the ship — from the fog that rolls over the deck in the morning to the palpable intimacy of everyone being stuck there together — adds an intrinsic charge to even the most basic scenes.
This story, like the people in it, wouldn’t have held together on dry land, and there’s something wonderfully indulgent about surrendering to the undercurrents that swirl beneath Alice’s friendships. But the run-and-gun approach that makes this movie possible is also what ends up shooting it in the foot, as the clock is always ticking and Soderbergh never has time to get out of the shallows. There are moments where this threatens to crystallize into a shrewd portrait of how people ebb and flow out of each other’s lives over the years, but the film always falls back on its more frivolous pleasures, and the cringe-inducing “romance” between Tyler and Karen ends up becoming the sturdiest of its subplots.
And so we’re left with a conundrum that muddies the clear moral at the end of Alice’s story: A David Fincher type could never make a movie like this, but “Let Them All Talk” might’ve been better if he had.
“Let Them All Talk” will be available to stream on HBO Max starting on Thursday, December 10.