Set almost entirely onboard the Queen Mary 2, Cunard’s trans-Atlantic ocean liner, Steven Soderbergh’s latest film boasts the relaxed, improvisational vibe of a temporary diversion—the sort of thing one might cook up to help pass the time during an extended voyage. Let Them All Talk’s screenplay is credited to renowned short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg—a six-time winner of the O. Henry Award—but she reportedly created only the characters and a rough outline of potential plot developments, leaving the dialogue to be invented by the cast. (Eisenberg’s story doesn’t involve gossip to be ignored, so the film’s title seems to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to this process.) Making up your movie as you go along, to any extent, is always risky; the hope is that you’ll gain in playful spontaneity more than you’ll lose in artful precision. In this case, the gamble mostly pays off, even if a lot of what happens does feel slightly random.
Building everything around one of the world’s greatest actors doesn’t hurt. Undeterred by the tepid critical response to her previous collaboration with Soderbergh, Meryl Streep stars as Alice Hughes, a Pulitzer-winning novelist whose agent, Karen (Gemma Chan), keeps bugging her for hints about the nature of her manuscript-in-progress. Karen also encourages Alice to accept, in person, a U.K.-based literary award; because Alice won’t fly, Karen books her on the QM2 and secretly also buys passage for herself, in the hope that she’ll be able to determine whether the new book is in fact, as rumored, a sequel to Alice’s one big commercial hit, You Always/You Never. Alice, meanwhile, doesn’t want to travel alone, so she invites two long-estranged friends, Susan (Dianne Wiest) and Roberta (Candice Bergen), to join her. She also needs an assistant, and drafts her improbably young nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges), for that purpose.
In reality, Tyler spends most of his time assisting Karen, for whom he instantly falls, passing along every crumb of info that Alice spills regarding the manuscript. There’s plenty of other intrigue, too: Alice, a raging egotist, is none too pleased to discover that best-selling author and “cottage industry” Kelvin Kranz (Dan Algrant) is also on the ship, vacuuming up attention that she believes is rightfully hers; Roberta, whose turbulent romantic life inspired You Always/You Never, strategically avoids Alice while awaiting a belated apology; and Susan… well, actually, Susan never quite comes into focus, despite Wiest’s best efforts. Nor does any of these storylines take a traditional dramatic shape. Instead, they play like amusing exercises, accumulating wry details before concluding with the “Okay, good enough” abruptness of a Saturday Night Live sketch. The journey matters much more than the destination.
But that’s the nature of an ocean voyage—if getting there quickly and efficiently were the goal, you’d have been on a plane. Soderbergh, whose own ultimate goal seems to be shooting movies on location using only available light and his own eyeballs, takes full advantage of the Queen Mary 2, 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 they do anyway. (When Alice briefly wanders into a restricted area, one can’t help but think it’s for the sole purpose of showing us what that part of the ship looks like.) And while Magic Mike suffered from notably awkward improv whenever its characters weren’t bumping and grinding, the five main actors here do an impressive job of keeping Eisenberg’s wispy ideas aloft. Bergen, in particular, has enormous fun playing against type as a crass, unapologetically avaricious woman for whom even a lifelong friendship represents just another opportunity; it’s a pleasure just to see this oft-squandered pro take hold of a prominent role that isn’t either Murphy Brown or Generic Grandma #12. Everyone’s having a splendid time, though, and while their loose-limbed, quasi-directional energy doesn’t always transfer to the viewer, there’s something to be said right now for just vicariously enjoying lazy travel and a finely attuned ensemble.