Few play with the expectations of genre quite like Steven Soderbergh. His most mainstream hits include the delectable Ocean's Eleven through Thirteen capers, and directing Julia Roberts to an Oscar with her powerhouse Erin Brockovich role. But his overflowing resumé is loaded with a string of hard-to-pin-down pictures that don't quite go where you expect. Among them is his latest, Let Them All Talk.
Like Brockovich, we've got a strong female lead in Meryl Streep, flanked by two other titans: Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest. The setting lends itself to heists and adventures — a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2, where Alice (Streep) has invited her two oldest friends (Bergen's Roberta, Wiest's Susan) for a reunion of sorts. The trio haven't all spent time together for 30 years, and great physical and social distance has grown.
And yet, despite the appearance of an actual mystery writer as a supporting player, and Thomas Newman's jazzy score that preps your ear for crosses-and-double-crosses, don't expect a whodunnit. Don't even expect barn-burning monologues from these three great actresses. This is a "sophisticated" film focused on quiet observation, not histrionics
Streep's Alice is a variant of her "Ice Queen" roles found in The Devil Wears Prada or The Iron Lady. She's a wildly successful novelist of award-winning fiction, coming across as aloof and haughty, but also a little clueless and, after a spell, deeply insecure. Maybe. It's hard to know for certain; she may be letting her guard down or she may be trying to get something from you.
She won't (or can't?) fly, so in order to accept a prize in England she convinces her agency to get her across the glove via ship. They are happy to oblige; they'll do anything for more intel on her long-in-the-works new manuscript, especially if it is, indeed, a sequel to that one blockbuster novel from decades earlier that was made into a film and a miniseries.
Alice is bringing guests. Roberta (Bergen) is a tell-it-like-it-is tough cookie hating her current life making hourly wages at a department store in Texas. The high roller's journey, she thinks, may afford her an opportunity to seduce a wealthy widower. If not that, she'll at least finally get something off her chest: She blames Alice's hit book for ruining her life, as she feels it was actually all about her.
Wiest's Susan is the mild-mannered go-between, an advocate for battered women who seems flaky one moment and quite shrewd the next. While Alice spends the day agonizing over her work and swimming laps, Susan and Roberta chat over board games (some quality Parker Brothers product placement here!) and try to analyze their friend's actions.
While they are looking for clues, however, Alice's nephew and aide-de-camp, played by Lucas Hedges, is kinda-sorta spying on Alice's old chums at Alice's request. But wait, there's more! Alice's agent, played by Gemma Chan, is also secretly on board and, kinda-sorta using her feminine wiles, has convinced Hedges to spy on Alice. Add to this a few other curious men who pop up (like the aforementioned mystery writer) and we have a very rich cast of characters.
With everything in place, Soderbergh and screenwriter Deborah Eisenberg (she herself a very respected older writer of literary fiction) are happy to let the story find port by power of its own droll steam. The revelations are slight, but once you adjust your expectations (or perhaps you are are lucky enough to read this review before watching!) you'll find yourself on this movie's soft, lilting wavelength.
As it happens, I happen to be a cruise veteran. (It's a long story.) Let Them All Talk accurately depicts the experience. When you leave shore and are surrounded by water, the structure of life on land disappears. It's more about what lounge we should sit in now, where should we stroll, when do we eat, and what show do we watch later. (The Queen Mary 2 apparently has its own planetarium. Incredible.) So maybe a movie set on a ship should leave behind typical movie expectations, too. Sure, you'd get there days earlier if you flew, but the unusual route has its own rewards.
TV Guide rating: 3.5/5
Let Them All Talk premieres Thursday, Dec. 10 on HBO Max.