‘Let Them All Talk,’ a cruise-ship comedy starring Meryl Streep, directed by Steven Soderbergh
A lush trifle, Let Them All Talk showcases seasoned actors luxuriating in opulent settings and bloviating with hollow authority. It’s a triumph of consummate professionalism servicing slender character sketches and trumped-up intrigue. It’s also an absolute delight, even if it’s oddly forgettable. But what a sleek, supple ride.
LET THEM ALL TALK ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Deborah Eisenberg
Starring: Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Gemma Chan, Lucas Hedges, Dianne Wiest
Running time: 113 min
Thank Cunard for the production value, since the film takes place almost entirely on the British cruise line’s mammoth mothership the Queen Mary 2. At the behest of her publisher, airplane-averse acclaimed novelist Alice Hughes (Meryl Streep) is crossing the Atlantic to accept a literary prize in Wales. She doesn’t want to trek alone, so she insists on bringing along two college friends: Seattle social justice lawyer Susan (Dianne Wiest), and Roberta (Candice Bergen), a lingerie saleswoman in a Dallas department store. Plus, Alice asks her nephew, sweetly accommodating Tyler (Lucas Hedges), to join.
The “Gang of Three” haven’t seen each other in almost 30 years, and the strain shows. Susan hesitates before accepting the invitation, suspecting an ulterior motive. The hard-up divorcée Roberta, though, leaps at the prospect of some extracurricular gold-digging in between meals. Alice, meanwhile, is stressed about finishing her overdue manuscript. “I’m just not going to be available,” she says to her invited guests. “But we’ll have supper together!” What’s the point of gathering them, then? And why now?
The film reveals all this and more, eventually, in a coy narrative striptease that rollercoasters from scintillating to enervating and back again. Where did the ideas for Alice’s most celebrated book really come from? How come Roberta keeps rebuffing Alice whenever she wants to have after-dinner drinks? Why is Alice’s fetching lit agent Karen (Gemma Chan) secretly on the boat, and why does she keep texting Tyler? And who is that quiet African American man constantly coming out of Alice’s room every morning?
Also on the ship is wildly popular bestselling mystery author Kelvin Krantz (Dan Algrant), which irks Alice but delights her friends. Susan gushes that she’s read all his books. “Some of them twice.” Meanwhile, Alice hands out de facto homework: a highbrow read entitled Realm of the Owl, by Blodwyn Pugh. She reveres her; the other two can barely get past the first page.
One of cinema’s great restless auteurs, Soderbergh jumps at novel creative challenges and finds inspiration in limitations. Let Them All Talk was no exception: a guerilla-style two-week shoot with lightweight cameras, no script, and a game cast willing to improvise on the spot using basic plot guidelines. The extras are actually passengers. The cabins are the actors’ actual sleeping quarters. There’s a let’s-put-on-a-show voltage to the movie, and the actors’ antennae-quivering energy is a riot. Old pros like Steep, Bergen, and Wiest seem to be having a ball out-quipping each other, and Hedges’ open-faced reactions of low-key surprise are an unpredictable hoot. Furthering the jaunty vibe is Thomas Newman’s jazzy Rat Pack score, a splashy horn-driven big band sound performed by Monk’estra.
The whole film is a high-wire act of execution, especially considering that Soderbergh not only directed but also was his own cinematographer and editor, shooting the story in sequence and cutting together scenes within hours. But there’s little depth underneath all the polish, which is especially heartbreaking after seeing these performers do their level best to make their characters resonate. After all the gorgeously photographed images, well-appointed rooms, shrewd portrayals and clever plot reveals, Let Them All Talk just doesn’t leave much to talk about.