Let Them All Try Harder

As I was lazily decorating my tree on Saturday I decided to “give a go” to a movie I’d seen scroll across my HBO “for you” list. It’s part of my new personal initiative to consume some new popular culture and not just do a wholesale-rewatch on The West Wing and other favorites for the 12th time (in 12 years, but who’s counting). Stretch yourself, I said. Give “Let Them All Talk” a chance…maybe it’ll surprise you. And truly, said I, how could it be with this cast?

Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Diane Wiest. Directed by Stephen Soderbergh.

Words cannot describe how hard my optimism got slapped down in this sad, sad movie which–I now understand why–was made for cable. Talk about a waste of everyone’s time…including the actresses.

In one complex sentence, Meryl Streep plays a successful if not completely navel-gazing and idiosyncratic prize-winning author who undertakes a Transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary II to collect a hoity-toity British book prize and asks her two closest college friends (Wiest and Bergen) to come along in what seems like a mission of reconciliation. I’m going to go ahead and skip giving a full review of this movie because the New York Times channeled everything I thought about this and I’ll let you go and read that for both a sense of the story and why it utterly, utterly failed.

What I’ve been reflecting on and that I do want to tackle here is why my disappointment goes so far beyond the slow revelation that the potential for what could’ve been a really excellent story–told either as a dram-com or comedy-mystery-thriller (think Knives Out but on a ship) but neither done here–was thoroughly wasted. WASTED (I mean, you have Candice Bergen who deftly played Murphy Brown for how many goddamned seasons and Diane Wiest who has proven time and again dramedy heft…and what do they do…sit on deck chairs and and talk about WHAT?!? I STILL DON’T KNOW. I’m so disgusted).

The real shame here is that you’ve got three seasoned, deep and fully formed actresses of a certain age, with all of the chops to make a shared film that could rival that of the Pacino-DeNiro classics, that could almost introduce a new genre of film that requires actresses in their middle life years, with all of the art and wisdom honed by years creating characters and telling stories, to bring their best A-game for each other and in service of that story. It gives me chills to think how great and necessary that project is. Unfortunately, this vehicle, fully equipped to make that happen, wasn’t it.

What was it? It was shallowly-conceived “middle age women” characters–all archetypes, I’d argue, inhabiting a story so banal and sad (and I use that word sparingly because who can say it right? I can’t. I’m sure you can’t either…) that it seems a disservice to women of this age, almost wanting to convince us that all women of this age are actually just different flavors of banal and sad. I’ll unpack.

When we meet Meryl Streep’s author protagonist, she’s condescendingly holding court at an upscale restaurant with a new cub of an agent–a young Asian American woman. From her black turtleneck, chunky black-rimmed glasses and matronly faded platinum blonde, upswept hair (you know not-a-bun low messy bun) you know two things: quirky and rich….and sounds just like Miranda from A Devil Wears Prada with that breathy baritone snarl…

Similarly, when we meet the two best friends, it only takes an instant to figure out exactly which archetype they are: Wiest with her blue linen smock dress with white tee, sandals, and pixie hair–I thought “teacher” was inevitable but I wasn’t wrong by much: she’s an advocate for women in prison. Social worker…of course. Bergen–a big physical presence– with long, blonde hair in big, hairsprayed barrel curls and a variety of sequined track suit jackets or, my most favorite, a ten-gallon hat, jeans, and cowboy boots, lets us know she’s some kind of tacky Texan with floozy tendencies. Sure enough, she’s exactly that who, a divorcee, who then goes on to apologetically announce she works in a lingerie store…after Streep’s book ruins her very cushy life bought by her rich ex-husband.

One dimensional. These characters are so one dimensional that, for the starpower embodying them, it actually demeans their talent. I actually thought this was part of the ruse: they were presented one dimensionally at first because something chewy would surely happen before long. It never did.

I’m not going to spoil the ending because if I had to watch the whole terrible thing, so should you, but needless to say, something happens that, if set up correctly, could’ve been at least poignant. Instead, I actually felt relief…it clearly signaled this mess was coming to an end.

I leave wondering what in the world enticed these three massive stars to want to do this. Were they paid a ton of money (For an HBO Max Original, I’m thinking no)? Was this a director’s an editor’s foible, leaving key pieces on the cutting room floor (Steven Soderbergh directed…I’d have a hard time believing that)? Or is this just a sign of the times–that so few parts for women this age come around that when they saw a script that involved three of them, no matter how grossly underdeveloped and weird it was, they jumped? I just don’t understand. But of course, I think I can guess what happened here…something along the intersections of lazy and maybe hopeful that star power could fix massive problems in story and character and stars of a certain age wanting to work together more than caring about what their characters actually say.

Ugh. I shake my head.

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