In 2019, 30 years and about 30 movies after sex, lies, and videotape, Steven Soderbergh finally made a bad movie. In true Soderbergh fashion, he made that bad movie the same year he made a good movie, and a good movie that so supernovaed in esteem due to the events of this year that the bad one was washed from memory. But not my memory. The Laundromat was the most crushing disappointment of last year, every trick he’d make look so effortless before suddenly failing him all at once. It’s not funny, it’s inscrutable as education, and it doesn’t even have the usual pleasures of watching Soderbergh’s all-star cast in action; David Schwimmer is a good actor and he’s terrific in it, but when David Schwimmer is one of the few making a positive impression in a movie with that loaded a cast, something has gone horribly wrong. But even before word spread of Laundromat‘s badness, there was hope on the horizon. Announced on his Twitter the day he started filming it, Let Them All Talk was shot on the newest model of the RED over two weeks in August last year, finishing just before Laundromat‘s Venice premiere. Now that it’s finally here (more than a year between movies in Soderbergh time might as well be the gap between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line), I’m proud to report that The Laundromat was just an aberration, not a warning sign.
Towards the middle of Let Them All Talk, Alice Hughes (Meryl Streep) does her best Col. Kilgore and says “Someday, that book’s gonna end.” She’s referring to someone making their way through The Odyssey, but it applies much more strongly to her. She’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, taking to the very last minute writing her new book and giving her agent Karen (Gemma Chan) heartburn in the process. Karen wants to see the manuscript, Alice is set to receive a literary prize in England, and Alice prefers not to fly, so the circumstances align for a scheme (a fairly low-rent, hole-filled one by Soderbergh movie standards, we’re not dealing with criminal masterminds here): Alice will go on the ocean liner Queen Mary 2, Karen will secretly tag along, and Alice’s nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) will feed Karen information about the status about the book. Along for the ride are two of Alice’s oldest friends, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest). Susan only reluctantly accepts and tries to put on a happy face, but Roberta happily accepts the invitation as a revenge mission, after that book of Alice’s that won the Pulitzer was sussed out as a thinly-veiled account of Roberta’s life. Also on-board is mystery author Kelvin Kranz (Dan Algrant), who Alice loathes as a writer of “styrofoam” and Roberta and Susan worship at the ground of. All the pieces are in place for a glorious farce, but even the things that do go wrong don’t go wrong in the ways you expect.
One of the many problems with The Laundromat was that its visuals were simply not up to the standards that Soderbergh has set for himself. It had its moments visually (nobody’s mistaking those red-lit shots of David Schwimmer sulking in a bar for any other director/DP), but too much of it felt unusually cheap and sterile for someone who one movie before was getting intelligent, beautiful compositions from his goddamn iPhone. Maybe it was the older model of the RED holding him back on that one, because this is one of the most beautiful movies he’s made in a career full of them. Queen Mary 2 is maybe the most ideal setting ever for a Soderbergh movie, since it needs no additional lighting or camera trickery to provide that Soderbergh color timing we all know and love, and then some. Not since Magic Mike XXL has Soderbergh cast so many scenes in such glorious colors, not just the expected piss-yellows but purples and blues and golds. This could be Soderbergh’s Storaro movie, externalizing the vibrancy of life, except for the fact that Soderbergh always sets out to reject the brand of maximalism that Storaro traffics in (The Underneath was the closest he got to that and look how that went for him). In a film this driven by conversations, a director can either try in vain to spruce it up or just commit to doing the best shot-reverse shot possible, and Soderbergh does the latter. It begins right away, with an opening conversation that, much like the one that starts High Flying Bird, establishes tone by a cut to a tighter shot or a judiciously-placed 180-degree-rule break. His dialogue scenes, especially in the digital period, look great because he has the understanding of how to make a composition the most visually appealing, and thematically revealing, one possible; even just the way the camera emphasizes the surroundings around the people as they talk serves a purpose, to make this a story of groups rather than just of individuals. It’s simple stuff, but with more thought put into it than most directors put into their show-off scenes (this and Mank coming out so close together goes to show how many directors lack Soderbergh and Fincher’s eyes for where a camera needs to go at every moment). Perhaps The Laundromat was useful as a way of exorcising Soderbergh’s more ostentatious instincts, because this is as brilliant and unshowy as he’s ever been.
As with High Flying Bird, all the visual panache is in service of a great script. Or maybe not. Much like the chatter around the mysterious “Rebecca Blunt” when Logan Lucky came out, Let Them All Talk has been the subject of much speculation about its writing process. Also much like the Blunt business, that discussion isn’t particularly interesting so I’ll breeze through it; the dialogue in Let Them All Talk is largely improvised, but improvised under strict guidelines. The actors’ words were mostly their own, but they were told where the scenes needed to go and what information those words should convey. So while the film contains plenty of amusing exchanges, we shouldn’t overlook the efforts of writer Deborah Eisenberg, making her film debut after being one of the most acclaimed short story writers alive, in structuring the movie around the improvs. The title (taken from an Elvis Costello song) suggests a chatfest, but the dialogue is mostly subservient to what these people aren’t saying to each other, which is everything they need to say. The film is a series of preparations for battles that never come, the repetition of its structure (Streep and Hedges eat breakfast together, Streep goes for a swim, Wiest and Bergen play board games, Streep, Hedges, Wiest, and Bergen eat dinner together, and so on) maintaining a low-boil tension as confrontations are set up and not acted upon. Every scene between Streep and Bergen is a Hitchcockian bomb under the table that just refuses to detonate. Then, in true Soderbergh fashion, a different bomb that you had no idea about goes off instead. I won’t say anymore, except that by the end, the title seems like a plea for healthy conversation rather than just staying in your own head. The last lines talk about the beauty of hooking up with someone else’s consciousness; that’s referring to art, but the film argues that it applies just as much to being a friend, or a relative, or even just an admirer.
Soderbergh’s pet theme as of late has been transactional relationships, often ones that result in dire trade-offs for the less powerful person in the deal. Sign over all of your being to the NBA, and you will become rich; make every facet of your personality that you’re Liberace’s boy toy, and you will win his love and affection. The Alice-Roberta relationship is maybe not quite that drastic, but it’s similarly non-mutually beneficial. Alice really seems to believe that any friendship with her comes with the inherent agreement that she can use anything about you in her fiction. Roberta gets a friend’s shoulder to cry on during a rough time, but Alice gets money, praise, and the Pulitzer for paying attention in that moment. Alice’s open disdain for the resulting book, especially in light of her often-stated preference for its more personal, much less successful follow-up, could maybe be unconscious regret about selling out her friend, or it could just be a petty reaction to people finding Roberta’s life more interesting than hers (an epilogue scene seems to confirm the latter). But even with her regret, she’s still firmly on top; when Roberta tries similar arrangements with the rich men on the ship, she fails, because those kinds of transactions don’t work when the less powerful person is angling to get the most rewards. So this becomes yet another Soderbergh tale of the capitalist system hard at work screwing the little guy; he’ll occasionally cut in shots of the lowly Queen Mary 2 crew hard at work to make that point literal (there’s a mini-montage of the washing and delivery of the ship’s towels that cuts to Alice absentmindedly wiping her mouth with one of those towels). It doesn’t have to be this way either. For all Alice initially grumbles about the lack of artistry in Kelvin Kranz’s books, his impersonal potboilers are built from his own imagination, rather than the toils of the poor bastards who know him. And he seems to really love that his books connect with others, while Alice can only moan about the philistines choosing the wrong book of hers to praise. Alice talks about an author’s characters mostly being reflections of themselves, and that’s plainly obvious here. Kranz is the artist Soderbergh aspires to be, who wants nothing but to give the masses pleasure. Alice is the artist he fears he could become, the cranky formalist who demands the labor of her friends and her readers alike (imagine Soderbergh telling people they’re sheep for liking Out of Sight more than Schizopolis and you have the idea).
There are a few surprises in store for anybody who watches this, and one of them is the extent to which this isn’t a Meryl Streep movie. One of the (other) many problems with The Laundromat is that Streep is simply too powerful a force to use as just one part of a multi-pronged attack, so Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns take incredibly awkward half-measures to make her the main protagonist even while they try for more of an anthology film approach (as for one of their ways of giving her more screentime, uh, no comment). But here, despite the movie revolving around her, she happily fades into the background. She spends much of the film sequestered in her room, doing work on her manuscript that not even the audience is allowed to see. Even in her own scenes, she seems barely present, having spent so much at the top that she’s barely able to maintain normal conversations with people who were once her friends (“Did she always talk like that?”, Wiest asks at one point). Despite her being the lead of the movie, it’s a performance that’s easy to underrate on first watch, or write off as Streep doing a lame variation on her Devil Wears Prada ice queen persona. But Alice cares a lot, it’s just that she’s been held so high on a pedestal for so long that the thin air has fucked her up.
With Streep (intentionally) seemingly barely there, Wiest and Bergen get some of their biggest showcases of the last decade. From her introduction, trying to find the nicest, most Southern way to tell a customer at her lingerie-store job to fuck off, Bergen is a delight, occupying each frame with a refreshing brashness (down to the cowboy hat she wears when boarding the ship). There’s some melancholy to her always being on the hunt for new money, but she plays confidence where most others would play patheticness. Would that this played in a single theater, she’d be the crowdpleaser. Wiest gets a trickier character; it’s always more fun to play the instigator than the mediator, so Susan being the content one of the friends could make her a thankless role. But Wiest makes a meal of it anyway. As in her performances for Woody Allen, Wiest plays decency that keeps going unrewarded but is never stopped by that; her job as an advocate for incarcerated women means she has to face the misogyny of both abusive men and the court system, and for her wispy line deliveries, it has clearly given her a thicker skin than either of her friends. She plays it not as that she doesn’t want things to be uncomfortable, but that she’s appalled by such a petty, long-ago matter continuing for this long. She has as much rage as Roberta, it’s just turned in a more useful direction.
I would like to talk now about Lucas Hedges. At his best, like in the double-whammy of Manchester by the Sea and Lady Bird, Hedges seems like he might be the least self-conscious actor alive; just look at his first scene in Lady Bird, his deer-in-headlights gaze as he awkwardly but passionately sings “Giants in the Sky”, no actor with any concessions to vanity could play this earnestly embarrassing without underlining it as a joke. His contemporary/friendly rival Timothee Chalamet can sometimes feel like he’s straining for a James Dean-esque tortured cool, but I don’t get the sense watching Hedges that being cool has even once crossed his mind. If that sounds backhanded, it’s not, and especially not in the case of his performance here, which is his best to date. I’m a bigger fan than most of Cody Horn’s performance in Magic Mike, but Hedges accomplishes and much improves on what Horn is trying for there, playing someone constantly stumbling over themselves in a way that isn’t the movie version of an awkward person (his reaction to a major event late in the film reminded me of a key scene of Debbie Doebereiner in Bubble, witnessing a “movie” event and reacting to it as flatly as you would in real life). In a movie where everybody is choosing their words carefully enough that they’re often just not saying anything that they should say, Tyler is an open book, sometimes in a way that gets him in trouble but mostly in a way that makes him utterly endearing, both to the viewer and to the characters.
It seems at first that all Hedges is doing is adding some flavor to a purely reactive role; he’s a generous screen partner to all these great actresses, never trying to upstage them but giving them enough personality that they have plenty to work with in a scene. In one scene, he has to play against Gemma Chan delivering a heartbreaking monologue about a shitty boyfriend (according to Soderbergh, one pulled directly from her own life), and he reacts with sympathy but also barely holds back a laugh, as perfect a representation of stumbling into a conversation a little more serious than you can handle as I’ve seen in a movie. And then he somehow tops it later, where a climactic dinner scene mostly involves tense dialogue between Streep and Wiest but Soderbergh stays on a close-up on his face for most of it, as his initial worry that he’ll make dinner embarrassing for everybody melts imperceptibly into the worry that he can’t do anything to make the dinner less embarrassing for everybody. It’s a brilliant trick on Soderbergh’s part for that crucial a scene, but pay close attention and you’ll notice that he does it for almost every Hedges scene before it too. Soderbergh loves to watch Hedges process information in real time, subtly making him the focus of every scene he appears in. And his little romantic subplot with Chan begins to take up quite a bit of screentime, when the main plot would seem to be Alice and the ladies. Quoth The Simpsons, Let Them All Talk turns into a Lucas Hedges vehicle so gradually you don’t even notice.
Soderbergh has pulled this trick before. In a film packed with A-listers, humble character actor Jennifer Ehle emerges as the true focus of Contagion, not just for her work in curing the virus, but for the beautiful selflessness of her quest; she operates not for money or attention or even her own safety, but just for the notion that she has done good for others. Tyler may not be saving lives, but he operates under that same belief, to give and never take because the giving is enough reward. There’s some backstory about a neglectful father that gives the sense he had to learn the hard way the value of respecting others, which in other hands could be a recipe for creating a boring, saintly character. The genius of Soderbergh, Eisenberg, and Hedges’ work together with this character is that Tyler is an enjoyable dork and the moral center of the movie; we laugh at him saying things like “You’re killin’ it with the bags” and then we realize that, unlike his aunt, he’s comfortable in his own skin and wants to make everybody else feel comfortable too. If Susan works in opposition to the nonsense Alice and Roberta are continuing, Tyler offers the way forward for all of them, to just be there for each other without demanding anything. For any time you hear another bullshit complaint about Soderbergh being “cold”, the rebuttal is in everything Hedges does in this. No one who doesn’t love humanity could offer us such a sweet vision of the best of what humanity can be.
Don’t call it a comeback, he’s been here for years, yadda yadda. I had hopes that a small movie was just what was needed to get Soderbergh back in fighting shape, after Laundromat made such a mess out of such a big canvas. But Let Them All Talk is only deceptively small. Soderbergh says that he only wants to make genre movies because genre gives him the opportunity to work in big ideas and get people to pay attention to them while they’re (hopefully) having a good time. Let Them All Talk will make you laugh and maybe make you cry, but it will also make you consider the ways we interact with one another, how we exploit each other and how we can hope to move past that. I’d have been satisfied with a mere good-quality doodle, but this is, in its own quiet way, something special.
Lester Scale: Classic
The Soderbergh Players: Streep and Algrant are the only returning actors here; Algrant (a writer/director by trade) had a small part in The Girlfriend Experience. It seems like a mistake that Soderbergh hadn’t worked with Wiest and Bergen before, especially Bergen, since he’ll happily tell you that he ripped off Carnal Knowledge for sex, lies, and videotape.
The pared-down crew also means that there aren’t many recurring figures on the other side of the camera either (sound-man Larry Blake sits this one out like he did for the iPhone movies, and there’s no production designer at all). Casting director Carmen Cuba continues to be the one bedrock through every Soderbergh of the last decade-plus, while Gregory Jacobs continues as his producer and returns to being his 1st AD for the first time since The Knick. Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick has become Soderbergh’s main go-to since his “retirement”, doing Candelabra, The Knick, Logan Lucky, Laundromat, and now this. And after scoring the two iPhone movies under a pseudonym, Thomas Newman puts his own name on the score here for the first time since Side Effects.
- A Kelvin Kranz mystery title that you might want to take note of: Fugue State.
- The way this review went, I couldn’t really find a good place to discuss Gemma Chan, so I’ll do it here. Chan was the one wild-card of the cast for me, since I haven’t seen Crazy Rich Asians and remember nothing she does in Captain Marvel except be unlucky enough to fight Brie Larson while the world’s laziest No Doubt needledrop plays. But she’s excellent, playing a kinder, gentler variation on the “scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” dynamic that ruins Alice and Roberta.
- Speaking of Chan, the 15 seconds of this that are Soderbergh see-sawing the camera while she and Hedges dance their little hearts out will be tough to beat as the best moment of any movie this year.
- A cheeky subtitle at the start, “The Fall of 2019”, is the only acknowledgement of the fact that this shot just before making a movie on a cruise ship would be impossible, or at least extremely unadvisable. The events of the following year add an unintended poignant layer to this story, one about people wasting what little time they have left to make amends and made by people who have no idea of how little time they have left to make a movie this way.
- More about the Newman score. The post-Knick Soderbergh scores have felt a little phoned-in, reaching their nadir with the limp elevator music David Holmes turned in for The Laundromat. But this score is a lot of fun, an unexpectedly boisterous, jazzy work from a composer whose usual modes are traditional orchestral or minimalist keyboard-and-guitar-based. It’s a better imitation David Holmes score than any actual David Holmes score since Haywire.
- Soderbergh has mostly stayed straightforward since his unretirement, but a late sequence in this provides the kind of abstract montage that drove the likes of Solaris and The Girlfriend Experience. And it also provides another new mode for a Newman score, atonal droning.
- This might very well be the only movie ever made where a key emotional scene is built around the guy who says “I have more of a comment than a question” at a Q&A.
Up Next: After three years of “it’s actually a heist movie if you think about it”, Soderbergh finally goes back to making real heist movies with No Sudden Move, featuring a cast of every actor you like. And if Soderbergh isn’t lying, we’re finally getting the much-discussed Kafka reedit within the next year, along with shorter cuts of Schizopolis and Full Frontal.