Director Steven Soderbergh has had one of the more interesting careers in Hollywood. He started out as an indie darling, transitioned into more mainstream fare, and then decided to use his clout to make whatever types of films fit his fancy, but now with the pull to fill those films with casts that would be enviable for any filmmaker.
His latest output is Let Them All Talk, the type of talky, non-plot-driven film that few other filmmakers even attempt, much less make into a winner. Alice (Meryl Streep) is a famous literary author who has been invited to accept an award in Europe. Trouble is, she’s reticent to fly, so her agency arranges for her, her best friends Susan and Roberta (Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen), and her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) to make the crossing on the ocean liner the Queen Mary 2.
The trip brings up a variety of feelings for each member of the party, including anxiety over her new manuscript by Alice, long-held contempt for Alice by Roberta, and a much-needed escape for Susan. Tyler serves as a sounding board for all of them at one point or another, but he also finds himself being drawn more and more to Karen (Gemma Chan), Alice’s literary agent who is on the ship unbeknownst to Alice.
Filmed during an actual crossing made by the ship, the film has an authenticity to it that’s hard to beat. Little of the film feels artificial or Hollywood-ized, as each of the characters is shown doing what most of us would do on a cruise ship: Eat a lot, drink, swim, gamble, play games, sleep, and repeat.
Of course, the trip itself isn’t the point; it’s the conversations that are had throughout that drive the film. Alice, at least in the minds of her friends, has changed a lot since they first met, becoming aloof and judgmental, especially when she sees that a popular mystery writer is also on board. Susan and Roberta are tentative and deferential when the trip begins, but hold nothing back toward the end.
Even as they hash things out, other things remain hiding under the surface. Soderbergh and writer Deborah Eisenberg gave the framework for the film, but they also let the actors improvise most of the material. Not all of it works, but the effort adds to the realness of the film. Late revelations give extra meaning to earlier talks, adding to the emotion of the film as a whole.
If you’re going to trust any cast to pass the test of making a movie on a working ocean liner, it’s this one. Streep leads the way as a three-time Oscar winner and 21-time nominee, but Wiest (two wins, three nominations), Bergen (one Oscar nomination, five Emmy wins), and Hedges (one Oscar nomination) are more than worthy supporting actors. Chan, who impressed in Crazy Rich Asians, is even better here, and with a prime part in Marvel’s Eternals coming up, she’s primed to be a breakout star.
There’s nothing flashy about Let Them All Talk, and that’s for the best. Soderbergh has let his award-worthy cast do what they do best, and they deliver an engaging story that lives up to its unique setting.
Let Them All Talk debuts on HBO Max on December 10.