Premise: A famous author goes on a cruise trip with her friends and nephew in an effort to find fun and happiness while she comes to terms with her troubled past.
The title of director Stephen Soderbergh’s latest film feels less like a thematic summation and more like a way to describe Soderbergh’s method of approaching his subject matter. Filmed almost entirely aboard a cruise ship as it makes its way from New York to Southampton, the script reportedly consisted of minimal outlines from scene to scene, and the actors were left to improvise the rest. Soderbergh, who has made a habit lately of experimenting behind the scenes by filming entire movies on iPhones, may have finally found a gimmick that meshes successfully with his sensibilities. Of course, a film with no script can only be buoyed by the performances of its cast, and Let Them All Talk is brimming with talented actors.
Meryl Streep is Alice Hughes, a novelist whose glory days seem to be long past, decides to travel across the Atlantic to accept a prestigious award, at the behest of her publisher’s agent, Karen (Gemma Chan). Unable to fly for reasons not immediately revealed, Alice insists upon traveling via cruise ship in exchange for a speaking engagement and passage for a select group of friends and relatives. Joining her are long-time friends Susan (Dianne Wiest) and Roberta (Candice Bergen), who have both scattered across the country, and her loyal nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges).
Roberta begrudgingly tags along, seemingly to escape from her drab lifestyle as a department store clerk, though her deeper motivations are revealed in the second half. Tyler, introduced as beaming to his friends of his aunt’s career, comes aboard to manage Alice’s schedule and make sure she stays on track with her latest manuscript. Of the main cast’s arcs, Susan’s is largely left stranded, as she’s mainly a sounding board for the larger drama between her remaining friends. Soderbergh does efficient work of establishing the stakes for each character and the overall plot fairly early on, and each of the performers help to develop those stakes. Much of the first half of the film sees Tyler acting as a therapist to each character, playing out like a series of interviews where the drama is relatively low, but helps to expand upon the characters. It could be easy to see the film’s lack of big, dramatic tension as a detriment, but I found the playful interactions between the characters helped to keep the film from getting lost at sea.
Tyler’s storyline ends up as the most emotionally resonant, as he begins to spend most of his nights with Karen, who has slipped aboard, unbeknownst to Alice. Hedges and Chan’s chemistry is light and playful as they sweep from bar to bar throughout the ship on a series of pseudo-dates, and the end of their arc together provides one of the better dramatic moments in the film.
It goes without saying that Streep is great, as usual, in her role. I’ve always been drawn to films about the artistic process, and Alice’s ever-growing worry at climbing back to the early peak of her career is given the perfect amount of nuance and gravity. Of course, it doesn’t help that Alice soon discovers that a fellow author – a mystery writer who churns out novels faster than Stephen King or David Baldacci – is also on board, and that her friends have taken a shining to him and his work.
Many great artists tend to thrive most when limitations are placed on their creative process; Hitchcock famously worked with a smaller budget and a less-experienced crew when making Psycho, and the result was one of his most well-regarded films. Though it’s easy to say that Soderbergh wasn’t as deeply involved with the crafting of the dialogue or mapping out each individual character beat, he’s able to coax performances that range from heartbreaking to joyful to quirky, all while maintaining a level of emotional realism from beginning to end. Acting also as both cinematographer and editor, Soderbergh makes the entire experience feel natural. It’s not clear if the film was shot on an iPhone like his more recent experiment, 2019’s High Flying Bird, but the equipment used was reportedly minimal, and the background extras are real, unsuspecting passengers aboard the Queen Mary 2. He also peppers in establishing shots of various scenes across the ship: the kitchen with its industrial-sized pots and pans, the side decks, and the gorgeous scenery of the luxurious ocean liner. As terrified as I am of cruise ships in general (especially in 2020), Soderbergh manages to make the venue come across as appealing and inviting.
Let Them All Talk provides enough entertainment for casual audiences and techno-philes alike, as there is equal enough character intrigue in front of the camera as behind it. It’s not often that films involving middle-aged women are approached with this level of introspection; I kept waiting for some kind of divorce or mid-life crisis subplot to be revealed, but thankfully the actors were able to keep the story afloat. Equal praise should also be given to screenwriter Deborah Eisenberg, who is primarily credited as crafting the story outline. While the film never veers into melodrama, deeper character moments are revealed in the second half, as Susan and Roberta begin to question Alice’s true motivations for bringing them aboard the ship. These plot developments feel natural and not overblown – there’s no shouting matches or underhanded tactics. It’s also here where Candice Bergen really shines, as her deep-seeded resentments towards Alice are brought to light.
Soderbergh, as the captain of the ship, will ultimately receive credit for putting the film together, but the final result is a true collaboration, with no one aspect outshining the others in terms of importance. The journey may be considered too dull for some audiences, looking for more drama from a cast that involves Streep, Bergen, and Hedges. I found it to be a fascinating look at artistic expectations, and the positive and negative fallout that an artist’s success can have to those they know and love.
Let Them All Talk is now streaming on HBO Max.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.