Soderbergh, Streep, and the Situation

Lucas Hedges and Meryl Streep in Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk (2020)

Early reviews of Let Them All Talk, Steven Soderbergh’s second feature starring Meryl Streep, have been upbeat, and we’ll get to them in a moment. First, though, we should note that Nick Schager has spoken with Soderbergh for the Daily Beast in the immediate wake of WarnerMedia’s industry-rattling decision to roll out all of its movies throughout the coming year simultaneously in theaters and on its streaming service, HBO Max—which happens to be where Let Them All Talk will premiere on Thursday.

Soderbergh’s assessment of how things stand at the moment ought to carry considerable weight. It’s not just that the State of Cinema address he delivered at the San Francisco International Film Festival seven years ago was the talk of the town for weeks and months. Or that the premiere of his very first feature, sex, lies, and videotape (1989), was a landmark event in the history Sundance before the film went on to win the Palme d’Or in Cannes. It’s more, too, than the Oscar for Traffic (2000) or the mighty box-office returns for the Ocean’s trilogy.

Throughout his career as an early adopter, Soderbergh has been eager to explore the potential of technological innovations in every aspect of production and distribution, whether it be digital cinematography (Full Frontal in 2002), day-and-date releasing (Bubble in 2005), or shooting on an iPhone (Unsane in 2018). He’s taken on the long-form series (The Knick in 2014), the interactive narrative (Mosaic in 2018), and even dabbled with the short-lived, short-form streaming platform, Quibi (Wireless earlier this year).

The main point Soderbergh wanted to drive home this past weekend is that the theatrical experience will survive the pandemic. He’s told Schager that “there is no bonanza in the entertainment industry that is the equivalent of a movie that grosses a billion dollars or more theatrically. That is the holy grail. So the theatrical business is not going away. There are too many companies that have invested too much money in the prospect of putting out a movie that blows up in theaters—there’s nothing like it. It’s all going to come back. But I think Warners is saying: not as soon as you think.”

In the long run, Soderbergh would like to see more flexibility in the arrangements between studios and theaters. “If you’re in a bad situation, and you’ve got a movie that you opened wide, and you know Friday at 3 p.m. it’s not working, you need to be able to get it on a platform as soon as possible,” he says. Yanking a bomb would be beneficial for theaters, too, as it would clear a screen for a film that will click with audiences—even if it isn’t necessarily a new one. Soderbergh encourages even the big chains to consider incorporating more repertory programming, especially “now that we live in an all-digital world.”

The challenge Soderbergh has taken on with Let Them All Talk is the shooting of an entire feature during a regularly scheduled two-week-long cruise of the Queen Mary 2 from New York to England. Meryl Streep, who first worked with Soderbergh on last year’s The Laundromat, plays Alice, a novelist best known for winning the Pulitzer Prize several years ago. She has invited two friends from her college days, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest), to join her as she travels across the Atlantic to accept a lifetime achievement award. She’s also taken along her nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges), whose eye wanders to Rachel (Gemma Chan), Alice’s literary agent.

Before the cast and crew set sail, award-winning short story writer Deborah Eisenberg laid out a detailed, fifty-page outline from which the actors would improvise. “If you’re rigorous about it, you can get some really interesting stuff happening spontaneously,” says Soderbergh. “I would argue that, if you go back and watch the film with this in mind, there’s a quality to the way people listen when they don’t know what’s coming that is very compelling.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds the result “garrulous, elegant, bristling with classy performances from an A-list cast,” even if Let Them All Talk is “loosely and waywardly plotted.”

In the New Yorker, Anthony Lane suggests that Soderbergh “seems to be sketching out ideas for a plot, and gingerly feeling his way into its moral possibilities, as if he were clinging to a rail, beside a heaving sea. And yet the Atlantic stays calm.” Eventually, though, and “against all expectation, we find ourselves in a serious and somewhat Jamesian drama, strewn with riddles.” At Slant, Chuck Bowen assures us that the “dialogue isn’t shaggy in the tradition of most improvisatory comedies, but precise and finely honed in order to draw blood, accentuated by richly comic and melancholic body language.”

Bowen adds that Soderbergh seems to regard “the trio of legends at the film’s center with curiosity and respect as co-conspirators, as the ferocious stars of an atmospheric comedy of regret, rather than as potential gold-watch recipients who’re headlining condescendingly life-affirming pabulum.” And Streep “notably turns in her best performance in some time, even as she could nail this role in her sleep,” writes Chris Mello at In Review Online. “Recent Streep performances, such as her turn in the otherwise lovely Little Women, have increasingly tended towards distracting, self-satisfied play-acting, as if the actress is just pleased to be Meryl.” But Alice is “a less showy sort of character, one whose specific brand of beguiling obnoxiousness subsumes many of Meryl’s tics and alchemizes them into something worth spending time with.”

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