Jazzy melodies underscore a montage of characters embarking the regal ocean liner Queen Mary 2 early in Steven Soderbergh’s newest movie, “Let Them All Talk,” and you can owe it to the presence of acting royalty Meryl Streep confidently striding through the ship’s spacious confines if you find yourself thinking back to images of a suave George Clooney surveying the Bellagio ahead of an ambitious heist in “Ocean’s 11.” “Let Them All Talk” is also a heist movie of sorts, although one in which the thing to be heisted isn’t gold bricks or poker chips but the minutiae of ambiguous agendas.
If that sounds like the stuff of a heady psychological watch, well...you’re sort of sailing on the right path. Remember: This is Soderbergh. Ever the flexible filmmaker, his newest work is his funniest and most light-footed since 2017’s “Logan Lucky,” even as it touches on ideas as weighty as the socioeconomic themes that drove his two 2019 offerings, the incredible “High Flying Bird” and the underwhelmingly overexaggerated “The Laundromat.” Witty, spry and a bit hazy, “Let Them All Talk” splits the difference of those two films while confirming that the director’s playfulness remains ocean-deep as his career enters its fourth different decade, to say nothing of his near-unmatched artistic restlessness (only two years this century have passed without a Soderbergh movie).
Streep plays the guarded Alice, a one-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author traveling on the Queen Mary 2 to accept a prize in Europe while she takes the time at sea to work on a mysterious new project. Also aboard the ship are three passengers she’s personally invited – her nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges), as well as two old college friends, Roberta and Susan (Candice Bergren and Dianne Wiest, respectively) – as well as one she hasn’t: Gemma Chan’s Karen, Alice’s new-ish agent tasked with finding out something, anything, about her client’s new book (fingers crossed it’s the anticipated sequel to Alice’s magnum opus). For her undercover mission, Karen enlists Tyler to report back from daily conversations with his aunt; he accepts out of eagerness for nightly rendezvous with the attractive agent (Hedges might have the toughest role here, for all the layers that construct his character).
At the same time, Roberta confides in Susan about her long-harbored suspicion that Alice’s wildly successful first novel was based on her life, one that’s since been defined by romantic struggle and an unsatisfying department store job where customers lecture her on the difference between teal and peacock. Susan has no particular reckoning of her own with Alice, but she wonders just as much about why she and Roberta were specifically asked to accompany her. Not that the impenetrable author herself particularly knows; she unknowingly doubles down on Tyler’s spying duties by asking him to keep tabs on her friends. “It’s important to me that I know something of their state of mind,” she tells him, a rare clue as to the mindset of this tough-nut-to-crack character. The words may as well have come from Karen or Roberta or Susan.
“Let Them All Talk” (written by short story author Deborah Eisenberg) may be devoid of flashbacks, but its many conversations – at dinner, under overcast skies, over the most symbolic game of Scrabble ever portrayed on-screen – are anchored by the baggage of ancient and recent past. The rainy decks and sparkly dining rooms of the Queen Mary 2 become arenas for tangled personal and professional desires, to the tune of awkward encounters and funny banter spiced by the differences in generationally defined priorities; the screenplay’s ideas about art’s consequences and motivations struggle to fully coalesce, but that hardly subtracts from the purer pleasures of watching Bergren, Wiest and Streep absorb themselves in Eisenberg’s delicious dialogue while constantly re-calculating their moves on the chess board. It’s a triptych of wonderful, absorbing performances in a movie that sustains our engagement less by dramatic urgency than by watching facades be erected, maintained and crumbled in the moment.
Tyler is our emotional and intellectual proxy to the shifts in demeanor and fleeting downward glances between the three old friends, and Hedges once again shows off an expert ability to play YAs who never find the right words to string his feelings together, particularly in his one-on-ones with Karen. His pursuit of the resolute agent – a subplot equal parts hilarious and sincere for how the two characters derive different purposes from their willingness to be vulnerable with each other – is that of someone who can’t see past the whims of a first impression, and the perspective allows Soderbergh to occasionally mold his story into mystery form when Tyler begins to notice the same man leaving Alice’s room every morning. Elsewhere, visual repetition of certain shots encourage us to keep on the lookout for subtle differences in daily routine aboard the Queen Mary 2—and perhaps new revelations as our characters traverse gray areas of righteous ownership over lives, stories and intentions.
It’s somewhat remarkable that narrative tensions develop at all, given that the origins of “Let Them All Talk” apparently consist of Soderbergh towing his small ensemble onto a very real, pre-COVID-era cruise and shooting in semi-improvisational format via iPhone. (“That’s what made it so fun,” the director said of the unorthodox, eight-day shoot.) The DIY-ness of the endeavor – which, to be clear, is near-impossible to observe in the final product – makes it a tad easier to overlook the movie’s final scenes on dry land, and a finale that’s jarring in its pathos when that pathos has come wrapped in thorny suspicion elsewhere in the plot.
“Let Them All Talk” is bookended with a monologue by Alice about how important it is that she “choose the right word” to advance her written work. Her meticulousness is a funny element for the movie to emphasize given the context of its production, which must have been frantic and absent the space for directors to be as meticulous as they otherwise might prefer to be. And yet meticulous is not an antonym for the movie itself; its gentle balance of tones and genres is as discreet as it is delightful. The movie is a flex from a major filmmaker without declaring itself a flex from a major filmmaker—such as it is, it’s a satisfying, lovely, sneakily philosophical vacation of a movie.
"Let Them All Talk" is rated R for language. It's available to stream on HBO Max starting Thursday.
Starring: Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen, Lucas Hedges, Gemma Chan
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
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