There’s such charm and fluidity to Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, Let Them All Talk, that it’s tempting to compare the film to a heist—not least because Soderbergh is still most widely known for directing the George Clooney Ocean’s trilogy. Though the movie, which premieres today on HBO Max, is nominally about three old friends at sea, there’s no question that everybody wants something, and is trying their best to get it. And it wouldn’t be the first time the comparison has been made when it comes to Soderbergh’s recent work—in his review of High Flying Bird, my colleague Dan Kois called it a “workplace heist movie”—but the women on this cruise aren’t up to anything illicit. If anything, the feeling persists because the experience of watching the movie feels like we, the viewer, are getting away with something, peering into the lives of three women and the uneasy process of digging up the past—and having a splendid time of it.
The occasion for the voyage is that Alice (Meryl Streep), a novelist, has been invited to accept a prestigious award in the U.K. (The author Deborah Eisenberg, who carts around her own wheelbarrow of literary prizes, wrote the screenplay.) Because she refuses to fly, her agent Karen (Gemma Chan) has booked her passage on board the Queen Mary 2, along with two of her old friends and her young nephew. Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest) aren’t sure exactly why Alice has invited them along, especially as it’s been three decades since they last saw each other. And Tyler (Lucas Hedges), as luck would have it, is just the right kind of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young man (or just appreciative enough of his aunt) not to balk at the idea of spending a week with a group of 70-year-old ladies.
Once reunited, the three former pals treat each other amicably enough, but the bonds between them quickly begin to fray. Alice informs the group that she will only be joining them for dinner, as she’ll be spending the rest of the day on her manuscript. Meanwhile, she expects Tyler to watch over her friends—as well as basically spy on them for her. This turns Tyler into something of a double agent, since he has also been enlisted by Karen to pry as much as he can out of Alice about her new manuscript. The bigger drama, however, is between Alice and Roberta. Roberta believes that her life served as the fodder for Alice’s most famous book, and that the novel was the cause of how far she fell following its publication. (She is the least financially secure of the trio, barely holding down a job as a salesperson in a lingerie store.) She wants an apology—or some form of acknowledgment—but Alice seems clueless.
There are even more elements at work—a Dean Koontz-esque mystery writer named Kelvin Krantz (Dan Algrant) is incidentally also on board the ship, and a thorn in Alice’s side—but they never become overcomplicated or overwhelming thanks to Soderbergh’s deft hand and light touch. Plot points are more often teased out than explicitly stated, and the apparently largely improvised dialogue—accomplished over the course of a real-life 2-week journey on the QM2, a new gimmick that follows in the footsteps of Soderbergh’s pivot to using the iPhone as his camera of choice—feels as natural as can be. Streep, Bergen, and Wiest are all legends, and watching them interact is the movie’s great pleasure. Though they’re all playing large personalities, they never fall back on clichés. Bergen is particularly wonderful, as her brush-offs of Alice’s attempts at being chummy are perfectly cold but polite, and her every other interaction on board the ship perfectly communicates the way she’s resigned herself to the idea that Alice’s book has dictated the shape of her life. Every smile she wears is just a little strained, and a tremendous weight seems to rest on her shoulders.
The three leads’ ease in playing off of each other makes the film’s somewhat abrupt ending come across less as a cop-out and more as one of the many curveballs that chance and happenstance can throw into life. Life is full of uncertainties, from the way friendships can wax and wane over the years, to whether or not anything is truly fated to be, and Soderbergh is deliberate in the way he plants wrenches in his own story.
The best moments in Soderbergh’s filmography are the warmest (the “Take Me Home, Country Roads” scene in Logan Lucky, the Bellagio fountain scenes in the Ocean’s trilogy), though never at the cost of ignoring the thornier parts of the stories he’s telling. Let Them All Talk is suffused with that sense of bittersweetness, aided by the ship’s predominantly gold color palette, taking the film beyond being a fleeting hang-out movie and into hidden depths. It’s a meditation on life and a touching ensemble picture, smuggled in by Streep’s star power and Soderbergh’s constant quest for innovation.
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