Let Them All Talk Review
So much of the analysis of Steven Soderbergh’s films fixates on the fact he is one of the most chameleonic directors working - a man as comfortable making arthouse experiments on an iPhone as he is making a major studio project with an A-list ensemble. And yet, even as critics recognise the deeper themes in his work, up to and including his most mainstream genre vehicles, very little has been written about how they actually tie together one of the wildest filmographies in American cinema, threading several films you’d be forgiven for not realising were the product of the same filmmaker.
Soderbergh has quietly become Hollywood’s most reliably anti-capitalist filmmaker, with several of his films in the last two decades either featuring an undercurrent of critique about societal gaps in wealth and class, or directly addressing failures in overriding capitalist systems, from the banking industry to big pharma and even the film industry itself. His latest effort, Let Them All Talk, is no different in this regard, as Soderbergh analyses the gap in wealth and class that separates a group of former college friends on a glamorous cruise, and how the differing paths their lives have taken has led to alienation when they’re on the ship together. Much like Sofia Coppola’s recent On the Rocks, it’s a deceptively slight comedy, which offers a far more cutting class critique than you’d expect from its simple premise. Needless to say, those expecting Soderbergh to have made a straightforward comedy built around older actresses (think Book Club on a boat) will come away disappointed.
Meryl Streep plays Alice Hughes, an author who is nearing the deadline to send her publishers the first draft of her manuscript, causing them anxiety as they are yet to see a single sign she’s been working. They agree to book her on a trip over to Britain in the hope this will inspire her, and to the shock of two of her former college friends Barbara (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest) they have been invited to join, alongside her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges), who is tasked with keeping the other women occupied and happy while she ignores them to write. Meanwhile, Karen (Gemma Chan), an employer at her publishing company, has effectively stowed away on the trip to make sure she is delivering on her promise to write what she believes is likely to be the sequel to her most acclaimed work, a bestseller from decades prior that Alice now detests.
Soderbergh’s approach to class critique isn't particularly subtle, but it mostly remains in the background of the drama, adding depth to what would otherwise be a lightly facial tale of a successful author whose refusal to finish a manuscript stresses out everybody in her orbit. It’s only as the film reaches its third act, with an all timer of a narrative left turn likely to divide viewers, where it becomes apparent that this examination of class divides was the focal point all along, twisting any genre expectations to become what can be best described as Parasite for the upper middle class 'wine mom' set. With its glamorous locale and focus on a successful author in a time of crisis, it could easily sound like a Nancy Meyers comedy on paper - instead, by its final moments it slyly subverts everything a middle class audience could expect from such a narrative, without reverting from Soderbergh’s typically laid back style.
The aforementioned left turn, which I won’t discuss here, merely makes explicit what was implicit all along. After all, this is a story about former friends on a cruise where the most successful member rarely takes the time to socialise with them, and is revealed to be staying in a much more expensive cabin, which leads one of the friends to become increasingly detached from the upper class locale she’s spending time in. But those divisions are largely secondary in the script, which manages to maintain a loose hangout film vibe in the midst of all this, with the more conventionally comedic story about the romantic trials and tribulations of Alice’s nephew largely taking precedent.
This hangout film vibe is all the more ironic considering how much the narrative is centred around a group of friends who aren’t able to spend time with each other even when on holiday together. Alice is nominally the main character largely because her various whims have led all these people into her orbit, even as they rarely come into contact with her - the film also keeps her at a similar distance, never allowing the audience a clear read on her, with the key to what’s keeping her at a remove likely hidden in a manuscript nobody is allowed to read. Although Streep fleshes out Alice with a performance that walks the tightrope between droll and camp, she remains more of an idea than a character - and when viewed as a statement on class divides, this becomes true of all three central characters, never showing that it has the heart to match its ideas.
Let Them All Talk is available to watch on HBO Max from December 10.