Brilliant Not-Quite Friends

Photo: Warner Media/HBO

Let Them All Talk is a movie about not-quite friendship. And I should admit now that the writer of this movie, Deborah Eisenberg, is a not-quite friend of mine. A decade ago I took a class with her. Now, a few times a year, we have coffee or a meal. She’s not my friend because she’s mythic to me. Because some of her stories, and I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a crazy person, saved my life.

She’s not my friend because when I go to lunch with her, I prepare for it. I don’t take notes, but I often think about the books I’ll mention when I talk to her. I think about what I will wear more than I do with nearly anybody else. The two emails that she wrote me, after reading each of the two novels I have written, I have saved in my in-box. Sometimes, when I’m sad about where my career is headed or not sure I should keep doing this silly thing that feels so pointless, I reread them and feel better afterward.

Let Them All Talk, out now on HBO Max, directed by Steven Soderbergh, is too about something that is not-quite friendship. It’s about three women, one of them a writer, who’ve known each other since college, though they’ve not been all together in 30 years. They’re people who were friends maybe a long time ago, but are now engaged in that strange and prickly and complicated grasping that occurs when friendship has been replaced by too much time passing since their last attempts at connection — marred by competing desires and investments, too much space in which everyone was able either to see more clearly or to project into what they thought the friendship might have been or wasn’t after all.

It’s a film, like nearly all of Eisenberg’s work, that explores the particular vicissitudes of life, the daily tragedies, grievances, and discomforts, but at the frequency of art.

The premise is quite simple: Alice (Meryl Streep), the writer, will not fly and is convinced into taking the Queen Mary 2 to collect a prize in England. Her agent has retired and her new one follows her secretly onto the ship to ensure her new manuscript gets done. Alice invites three others to join her: her nephew (Lucas Hedges) and her two oldest “friends.”

Roberta (Candice Bergen) has come to the boat angry. Alice, she thinks, used her life to write a book that garnered her a Pulitzer. That book, Roberta thinks, was the beginning of the end of her whole life. The film stays pleasingly opaque on the details of this: A book exists where the outline of Roberta’s life was written. That it’s not her feels true enough to Alice and to their other friend, Susan (Dianne Wiest), even though Roberta’s ex-husband used the facts of it against her in court. Roberta is sure, too, that Alice has brought her on the boat now to extract more from her, that this new manuscript is a sequel. She wants Alice to apologize.

In the little mention we get of what might be in this manuscript that everyone is after, Alice says, characteristically obliquely, she is trying to “contain lightning in a bottle, for a second time.” It seems likely, based on the number of times she asks Roberta separately to join her for a drink after dinner — though Roberta rebuffs her — that Roberta might be right.

The facts of other people’s lives are tricky things when it comes to writing fiction. Facts — which, in thinking about and teaching writing, I might call concrete details — can help to mold ideas that feel abstract, difficult to grasp or make sense of, into a clearer, more communicable shape. I have stolen plenty of these from my own life. It has always felt useful as I did it, even thrilling. It has helped to give shape and weight and texture to the things I want to say. But it can be scary, a little queasy-feeling, when one sees later what one’s used.

There’s a moment in the middle of the movie when Alice stands onstage and gives a talk to the ship’s audience. She’s talking about a book, a writer that she worships. She’s talking about the miracle of “one consciousness connecting with another consciousness through time.” She gives this book to Susan and Roberta on their first night on the ship together, just after telling them she’ll be spending most of the trip working in her room. She swims every day alone. Susan tries to read the book, but finds it impenetrable. Roberta never picks it up again.

In the movie, the women make fun of Alice’s pretensions. She speaks differently, they think, than she did in college. Her scarves and glasses are impressively overwrought. But she also seems earnestly to love them, to want to feel connected to them, to value and to want to touch and attempt to understand the complexities of their daily lives. She grasps at intimacy with both of them in moments, but also, mostly, she goes back to work.

Close to the end, when the tension between Alice and Roberta comes to a head, Susan stops them. She calls them both self-centered; she says that that day, on the news, Elon Musk announced that he was launching satellites into the air that would look like stars. The camera goes in close on her face — Wiest is the salt-of-the-earth character, good and steady, loving, the only one with children — “We will be the last people, the last generation,” she says, “who were able to look up at the sky and see actual stars.” After this they’re all quiet for a while.

Life, this moment seems to suggest, has irreplaceable value, and yet, what Alice does, what Eisenberg and I do, that’s all construction — one step removed already from the stars. Friendship, too, is like this. As often as we may claim, inside the things we make, to value the connection between consciousnesses, we run the risk, in all the time and life we take, to miss the ones we might have the opportunity to connect with in real life.

Brilliant Not-Quite Friends