The delicious irony of Steven Soderbergh’s breezy return to form, Let Them All Talk, is that nobody is trying to say much of anything. Or at least, they aren’t trying to say anything important, while saying plenty about everything else that doesn’t matter. Soderbergh’s latest film with Meryl Streep is a damn sight better than their previous effort, The Laundromat, and gives the legendary actress yet another winning role to sink her teeth into. With two other screen greats in Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest literally on board the cruise ship drama, along with Lucas Hedges and Gemma Chan, Soderbergh has delivered one of his best films since he came out of so-called retirement.
This feels like Soderbergh of old, where every line of dialogue, every glance, every life detail means something important. Penned by Deborah Eisenberg but semi-improvised by a cast more than equipped to do so, Let Them All Talk centers on the constantly-shifting relationships between three longtime friends. Streep place Alice Hughes, a demanding, bestselling author who has hit a block in writing her next book. With the publisher desperate for information, young editor Karen (Chan) organizes a cruise aboard the luxury liner Queen Mary 2, which will take Alice to the U.K. where she is to receive the fictional Footling Prize. Alice also sees this as a chance to reconnect with her oldest friends who she hasn’t seen in 30 years; bitter and desperate Roberta (Bergen), and Susan (Wiest) who is the sensible one. Also along for the trip is Alice’s nephew Tyler (Hedges), who is basically like a son to her. Oh, and Karen has snuck on board to spy on the whole thing.
Other characters drift in and out of this complicated circle, including a thriller author (Dan Algrant) that Alice’s friends adore but she quietly resents; and a mysterious man (John Douglas Thompson) who seems to be following her around.
Primarily, Soderbergh is exploring the lengths people will go to avoid having tough conservations, especially with those who care about most. There’s long-held tension between Alice and Roberta, with the latter believing her life was used as part of a successful book. She believes Alice brought them all together to probe for more ideas, perhaps for a sequel. There might be some truth to that; there might not. Soderbergh plays loose with a lot of character motivations here, giving the film a vibe similar to one of his early crime capers.
Meanwhile, everybody seems to be using someone else, which causes a constantly-shifting power structure within the circle. Karen manipulates Tyler’s affections for her so he’ll keep spying on Alice. Roberta is using Alice’s gift of this trip for her own selfish ends, as well. Filmed aboard the actual Queen Mary 2, the setting turns out to be perfect. Not only are these characters caught in a cage they can’t really escape from, but it’s so big and full of things to do (nightclubs, swimming, masquerade parties) that there’s always an excuse for them to avoid one another.
At the same time, all of this avoidance does drag things out and it can get pretty frustrating, with so much left unsaid and hanging out there for so long. The roundabout nature of the storytelling has its charms, though, because it means we get to spend more time with Streep, Wiest, and Bergen, who are uniformly excellent. In particular I had a blast watching Wiest, whose Susan has this sweet, matriarchal demeanor and she’s always trying to keep everyone comfortable. But she has her moments where it’s like the devil on her shoulder perks up and she drops a “motherfucker” unexpectedly or reveals something very personal about her sex life.
Another benefit to Soderbergh’s circuitous approach is that it gives you time to get comfortable with these characters. Sure, the dynamic between them always shifts but essentially these people are who they are. When a final act twist disrupts that pretty severely, it kicks us right in the teeth and partially makes up for a movie that is pretty lightweight for the most part. Let Them All Talk may be too unhurried for some, but Soderbergh knows where he’s going and steers this ship like a true captain.