Last year, a curious thing happened. Steven Soderbergh, the peripatetic filmmaker behind projects as varied as Ocean’s Eleven and Bubble, took Meryl Streep onto a cruise ship and filmed a movie with her. They weren’t alone; Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen joined them, as did Lucas Hedges and Gemma Chan. They set off from New York on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, across the Atlantic, the actors improvising along a plot structure by the short story writer Deborah Eisenberg.
The lark of such a project could be enough. “Look at the funny little movie these people made on a boat,” we might have mused when finally watching the film, Let Them All Talk (December 10, HBO Max). It might have simply been an arty riff on a genre familiar to Streep (It’s Complicated) and Bergen (Book Club) in particular. I’d have settled for that. But the pleasure of Let Them All Talk is in how it expands on the premise of an older lady hang movie, burrowing into darker corners and pausing to consider the ambient hum of life tumbling along. It’s a fun movie. It may also be profound.
Streep plays Alice, a celebrated author of novels who is struggling with her next book. She has one big hit in her past—adapted into a movie and later a mini-series, revered the world over—while her subsequent work has only set smaller fires. But she’s just won a significant award, giving her ego a healthy boost, and has to travel to the United Kingdom to retrieve it. She doesn’t fly, so her resourceful (perhaps conniving) agent, Karen (played by Chan), arranges for Alice to make the Atlantic crossing by boat. Alice invites two old but estranged friends, Susan (Wiest) and Roberta (Bergen), as well as her nephew, Tyler (Hedges). No one is quite sure why they’ve been brought along, but they happily accept the offer.
There’s a mystery there, in that Susan and Roberta are suspicious of Alice’s motivations. Roberta is especially wary. Alice’s most successful book borrowed heavily from Roberta’s own life, leading to the dissolution of Roberta’s marriage and her exile into the financial wilderness. (Roberta sells lingerie to demanding customers at a Dallas department store, a far cry from Alice’s padded and coddled existence.) Roberta is angry at her old friend, and can’t quite figure out why she’s been drawn back into her life in such a strange manner. Soderbergh and his cast deftly strum this string of tension, building a credible air of politeness masking resentment.
The actors thrill to the challenge of half making things up as they go along. Let Them All Talk is a sturdy showcase for their intelligence, every cast member nimbly, extemporaneously guiding each scene to its intended end. Almost like a Chekhov play, the dialogue is silly and dreamy, pointed and sweet. Similar to much of the Russian master’s oeuvre, this film listens to the creak of time, all the old things wearing down just as new urges and wishes sprout into being.
Streep could, in some senses, be approaching the film as a meta commentary on her own ivied stature as the world’s greatest living actor (in some people’s estimation, anyway). If that is what’s happening, she never betrays her motivations with a wink. It’s all played pretty earnestly, as is Wiest’s quiet melancholy and Bergen’s scrambling loneliness. They let themselves go deep, rather than just skimming across the surface of the story in lively, prickly fashion. I love how seriously they take the playfulness of the film.
A hint of potential romance emerges as Tyler develops a boyish crush on Karen, who has sneaked onto the ship to keep a close eye on her star client and enlists Tyler to be her mole. Their scenes together are just as charged and offbeat as their elders’—Chan in particular crafts a lovely and sad monologue about Karen’s drift into her late 30s, specific enough to feel truthful to the character but broad enough to speak to lots of people, I would imagine. Let Them All Talk has an easy appeal, inviting us into its journey rather than putting us at an observing distance.
The film looks fantastic as well. Soderbergh—doing his own cinematography, as ever—bathes the ship’s interiors in a lacquered glow, at times jeweled and fuzzy like a dream, at others crisp with reality. He’s got such a keen eye for natural occurrences of color and angle, identifying interesting spaces and dimensions and then giving them his signature polish. Thomas Newman has written a winsome score to complement Soderbergh’s pretty pictures, livening the film with a jaunty energy just as it might sink a little too far into solemnity.
There is something of a large twist in Let Them All Talk, which I won’t spoil here. While I suspect that this might be where the film will lose some people, it only pulled me in closer. This is not the kind of movie—if it even is any kind of movie—I expected to be moved by. And yet, there is its bleary poignance, closing out the film with a watery smile. One could wax maudlin and say that Let Them All Talk’s boat trip is really a metaphor for another great crossing, from one place to the next. I think the film can support that kind of grandiosity, but it doesn’t require it.