Known as a filmmaker who never repeats himself, it seems like it wouldn’t be too long before Steven Soderbergh set a film on a cruise ship and now we have Let Them All Talk, which sets itself on the trans-Atlantic ocean liner Queen Mary 2. But it also seems more noteworthy that Soderbergh’s latest boasts a relaxed, improvisational vibe, and that’s probably because there is some truth to that. With a screenplay credited to acclaimed short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg, it’s been reported how she more created the characters and a rough outline when it comes to the plot, leaving the dialogue to be invented by the cast. Though it’s also been made clear that the entire production wasn’t just everyone “winging it,” this type of a creative process can still bring its own risks; with the hopes that you’ll gain a playful spontaneity, you might lose some artful precision. Yet, it’s here where Soderbergh shows how it can pay off.
It also probably doesn’t hurt to build your creation around some of the finest actors the world has today. Meryl Streep stars here as Alice Hughes, a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist whose agent, Karen (Gemma Chan), keeps bugging her about the latest project she’s working on. It’s also Karen who encourages Alice to accept, in person, a U.K.-based literary award, but because Alice won’t fly, Karen decides to book her a cruise on the aforementioned ship, where she’ll secretly join the voyage in the hope that she’ll be able to determine whether the new book is in fact, as rumored, a sequel to a past commercial success hit for Alice, a novel called You Always/You Never. At the same time, Alice doesn’t want to travel alone, so she invites two of her long-estranged friends, Susan (Dianne Wiest) and Roberta (Candice Bergen), to join her. She also needs an assistant, so she brings along her young nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges), to fill the role.
Except, in reality, Tyler spends most of his time assisting Karen, for whom he instantly falls for, as he passes along every crumb of info that Alice spills to him regarding the manuscript. But there’s still plenty of other intrigue, too: Alice, a severe egotist, isn’t very pleased to discover that best-selling mystery author Kelvin Kranz (Dan Algrant) is also on the ship, vacuuming up attention that she believes is justly hers; Roberta, whose rocky romantic life inspired You Always/You Never, is strategically waiting for a belated apology from Alice; and Susan, well, she never really quite comes into focus despite Wiest’s strong work. Nor does the film really take any of its storylines and attempt a traditional dramatic shape. Instead, the film plays out like a relaxing hang-out, amusingly accumulating wry details before concluding to a somewhat abrupt ending. But then again, this is assuredly a film more about the journey rather than the destination.
And, thankfully, it’s an oceanic voyage — a place where quick efficiency isn’t on the agenda. Soderbergh, seemingly only using available light, takes full advantage of his location, exploring as much of its expanse as possible; there’s no particular reason for Karen and Tyler to visit the planetarium or the disco, for example, but in the relaxed, traveling vibe, they do anyway. He also understands all the other possibilities that amount with the location — from the fog that rolls over the deck in the morning to the palpable intimacy of everyone being stuck there together — which all help add an intrinsic charge to even the most basic scenes. With this finely attuned ensemble, everyone seems to be having a splendid time, even with the loose-limbed, directional energy.
Overall, this story, like the people in it, wouldn’t have held together on dry land, and there’s something wonderfully intriguing about basking in the undercurrents that swirl throughout Alice’s friendships. There are moments where certain aspects threatens to crystallize into a shrewd portrait of how people ebb and flow out of each other’s lives over the years, but the film does still fall back on its more frivolous pleasures at times. It’s not always the sturdiest voyage, but Soderbergh finds enough inklings of a breezy wistfulness for low-key successes. Loose, bubbly, and spry, Let Them All Talk finds Steven Soderbergh floating through the witticisms of an artist and her inspirations with a solid enough bite.
Let Them All Talk is available to stream on HBO Max