Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA, 2020. Extension 765, HBO Films, LS Productions, Warner Bros.. Screenplay by Deborah Eisenberg. Cinematography by Steven Soderbergh. Produced by Gregory Jacobs. Music by Thomas Newman. Production Design by Andy Eklund, Amie English. Costume Design by Ellen Mirojnick. Film Editing by Steven Soderbergh.
Meryl Streep plays a successful, difficult-to-impress author who has been awarded a significant prize in England and refuses to accept it in person. Her problem is that she doesn’t want to fly, so publishing agent Gemma Chan offers her an attractive alternative, why not take a few friends on a trip across the ocean on a luxury cruiseliner instead? Streep is happy to accept and puts together her small group of traveling companions, her nephew Lucas Hedges and two friends she’s known since her school days, played by Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen. She hasn’t remained close with either of these two over the years and sees this an opportunity to catch up, but it’s not smooth sailing for anyone involved. Bergen, who has been reduced to working retail in a lingerie store to get by, harbors resentment for having been left penniless in a divorce in which Streep’s first book, based on her own real-life indiscretions, played a key role; rather than coming out with this unfinished business right away, she dodges Streep’s company and focuses on getting whatever she can collect for free on the boat. Wiest, who has listened to both friends confide their issues with each other, is anxious about her position as peacemaker, while Hedges, escaping an unhappy home life, is very adamant about getting as much out of his aunt as he has been missing from his own self-destructive parents. Chan comes along for the ride as well, because the publishing house is arrange for this luxurious voyage in the hopes of getting a line on the book Streep is writing and about which she is being very cagey, and they’re hoping it will be a sequel to one of her hits. It sounds like the recipe for a spicy good time, but Deborah Eisenberg, here writing her first produced screenplay, isn’t interested in any of it in any particularly lively way, capturing realistic and generous conversations between the characters that are never as rich or challenging as the set-up would lead you to believe. Soderbergh hovers over his characters with a cold remove and without any delicate intimacy, much like the brochure-quality shots of the boat and the views it provides from its railings that populate the moments between scenes. No matter how allergic you believe yourself to be to manipulation this is a film that is far too determined to not be about anything, though for some that might be the appeal: Soderbergh should be commended for making a film about women above sixty that isn’t a goofy comedy that involves them doing something adorable like cheerleading or book clubs. Hedges is, as always, wholly unbelievable as someone whose personal life is in any way oppressive, no one begrudges the son of a Hollywood director for making it in the family business but there’s no denying that he reads as privileged and untroubled on screen no matter how hard he tries. It’s no matter, since he’s co-starring with three actresses who are of the caliber that can make reading the phone book entertaining, and it is thanks to their welcome presence that the movie (and its awkward ending) is as enjoyable as it is.