'Let Them All Talk': Film Review

Let Them All Talk Still
Courtesy of HBO MAX

Lucas Hedges and Meryl Streep in 'Let Them All Talk'

Luxury travel to a surprising destination.

Meryl Streep plays a famed novelist who invites her estranged college friends on a trans-Atlantic crossing in Steven Soderbergh's comedy-drama, also starring Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Gemma Chan and Lucas Hedges.

Always the intrepid storyteller, Steven Soderbergh proves an excellent match for brilliant short fiction writer Deborah Eisenberg in her first produced screenplay, Let Them All Talk. Much like the author, the main character here is a celebrated novelist who publishes infrequently and pays punctilious attention to every word, providing a succulent role for Meryl Streep. Her interplay with Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest as the college friends she hasn't seen in 35 years is enlivened by extensive improvisation, which gives this HBO Max original the enthralling spontaneity of vintage Robert Altman.

It's perhaps more satisfying on a scene-by-scene basis than it is as a conventional narrative, dropping references to a comedy of errors while remaining more subtly ambiguous about its form. Although it won't be for everyone, the low-budget film is nonetheless a spry and playful ensemble piece. It's full of wry observations about the confusion of relationships — female friendships in particular — along with droll insights about a writer's inspiration and whether drawing from real life constitutes a license or a betrayal.

In addition to wonderful performances from an ace cast, especially Bergen in divinely flinty form, the production is a technical jewel. Most of the action takes place on board the Queen Mary 2 during an actual crossing from New York to Southampton, England. Shooting under his usual cinematography pseudonym Peter Andrews, Soderbergh makes the vessel's imposing architectural and design features a buffet of quirky compositional beauty, starting with gorgeous glimpses of the ship sailing from Westside Manhattan and passing under the Verrazano Bridge.

The second feature this year to unfurl a significant passage of its plot aboard an ocean liner, Let Them All Talk goes even further than Azazel Jacobs' French Exit in exploring the oddball nature of life on one of those floating cities, with their crisscrossing casts of eccentrics. In a detail that seems apt for Streep's Pulitzer-winning author Alice Hughes, conspicuous mention is made of the fact that the Queen Mary 2 is to be referred to as a ship, not a boat, and the voyage a crossing, never a cruise. Coincidentally, both films co-star Lucas Hedges, here playing Alice's nephew Tyler, whom she treats as a glorified assistant only to reveal a deeper connection than he suspects.

Establishing a lively rhythm of short scenes laced with intriguing details, Soderbergh (also editing under his usual alias, Mary Ann Bernard) opens with vignettes introducing each of the main characters in the fall of 2019, with chapter headings such as "Alice, New York." The writer's outsized spectacles magnify Streep's eyes in a way that makes her seem to be constantly judging, although a disarming softness also surfaces at times beneath Alice's distracted self-importance and affected manner.

We first meet her over lunch with Karen (Gemma Chan), recently promoted to represent Alice after the retirement of her longtime literary agent. "Retiring, at what, 70? Why? Doesn't make any sense to me," mutters Alice with blunt disapproval. She has been awarded a prestigious literary prize given by fellow writers but refuses to fly to England to attend the ceremony. Karen suggests traveling by sea if Alice is willing to give a talk during the crossing; initially reluctant, she agrees on the condition that she can bring guests.

Along with Tyler, a student in Cleveland, those invitees include Alice's estranged college friends Susan (Wiest), a grandmother who works as an advocate for incarcerated women in Seattle, and Roberta (Bergen), who makes no secret of her disgruntlement with her job selling lingerie in a Dallas department store. Unbeknownst to Alice, ambitious Karen also tags along, angling to gain knowledge of her secretive client's unfinished new manuscript and using Tyler as her spy.

Karen, like everyone at her agency, hopes that Alice is working on a sequel to her biggest seller, You Always/You Never. That book is a sore point for Roberta, who believes the disastrous breakdown of her marriage served as the basis for the protagonist, Rowena, and that Alice owes her for the damage it inflicted on her life. While Alice makes vague statements about reconnecting "the gang of three … to pick up the conversation where we left off," Roberta suspects she has been asked along to serve up plot fodder through details of her life in the intervening years.

The strangeness and unpredictability of human relationships has been a central theme in Eisenberg's work since her biting 1986 debut story collection, Transactions in a Foreign Currency. Paired with Soderbergh's knack for drawing out the hidden shadings of his characters, this yields a scintillating group dynamic among the five principal characters stuck in the same contained environment. Thomas Newman's jazzy, '60s-style score supplies a teasing element that keeps you guessing about where things are headed, an aspect borne out in some unexpected swerves along the way.

Whether Alice's aim was to make amends for liberties she has taken in her prose remains unclear. She certainly doesn't show a lot of humility in Streep’s amusingly regal performance. Nor does Alice endear herself to her guests by assigning them homework, giving each of them a copy of an obscure book by Blodwyn Pugh, to be read before they visit the late 19th century Welsh writer's grave. She also makes it clear she will have limited time for them outside of their scheduled suppers, her days being occupied with writing and swimming.

This seems to suit Roberta fine; she brushes off Alice's suggestion that they meet for a drink without even inventing an excuse. Dressed by costumer Ellen Mirojnick in a tacky Texan wardrobe (lots of fringe), Bergen is like a bloodhound sniffing out well-heeled men on the ship and mostly encountering crashing bores.

Roberta and Susan regularly get together over a game of Monopoly or Scrabble or Clue and discuss Alice, with soft-spoken, direct Susan attempting to sand the brittle edges off Roberta's opinions of their old friend. But even Susan rolls her eyes at some of Alice's airs. "Did she always talk like that?" she asks, prompting a roar of laughter from Roberta. "Wonder why she talks like that." Alice is at her grandest when she gives her shipboard lecture, loftily describing it as "a tour through the landscape of my inspirations."

While the older women are navigating one another, Tyler is busy flirting with Karen, misinterpreting her interest in his aunt for romantic encouragement. There are also two enigmatic figures orbiting around the main characters. One is popular mystery writer Kelvin Krantz (Dan Algrant), "a one-man publishing industry," whose books both Susan and Roberta have devoured. Alice's satisfaction at discovering copies of her novels in the ship's library is a tad soured by seeing a larger selection of Krantz's works. He's courtly with her, she's patronizing, but he gets a warmer reception from Susan and Roberta.

The other stranger is a suave gentleman (John Douglas Thompson), often seated by the pool reading Homer and spotted various times by Tyler leaving Alice's cabin. When he questions his aunt, she responds, "That man is probably the one thing that keeps me going." Her reply seems to suggest some kind of clandestine liaison, but it's typical of Alice that she means it quite literally, a fact elucidated later in a poignant twist.

Eisenberg's stories often leave the reader with multiple impressions to be drawn concerning her meaning and her characters' intentions. The same applies to this flavorful, fizzy cocktail of a movie. With the ego of the true artist, Alice concedes at one point that while her work is drawn from life, she's essentially writing about herself in every character. Much of the pleasure of Soderbergh's elegant improvisational experiment is watching a handful of fine actors create their own open-ended fictions. 

Production companies: Gregory Jacobs, Extension 765
Distributor: HBO Max
Cast: Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Gemma Chan, Lucas Hedges, Dianne Wiest, John Douglas Thompson, Dan Algrant
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriters: Deborah Eisenberg
Producer: Gregory Jacobs
Executive producers: Ken Meyer, Joseph Malloch
Director of photography: Peter Andrews

Costume designer: Ellen Mirojnick
Music: Thomas Newman
Editor: Mary Ann Bernard
Casting: Carmen Cuba
Rated R, 113 minutes