There’s an awful lot going on in this new movie from Steven Soderbergh. The title is appropriate: it’s garrulous, elegant, bristling with classy performances from an A-list cast, and Deborah Eisenberg’s screenplay has a theatrical intimacy. It’s loosely and waywardly plotted, perhaps as a result of having gone through many drafts, though maybe not enough. It is slightly unfocused and uncertain as to where its emotional centre really lies – though there is a charm and a big dramatic finale.
The story is mostly set (and economically filmed, by Soderbergh himself) on a luxury liner, , the Queen Mary 2, crossing from New York to Southampton. Meryl Streep plays Alice Hughes, a renowned novelist whose reputation and sales rely chiefly on a sensational early book about the collapse of a woman’s marriage. Her agent (Gemma Chan) takes her out for lunch and has to charm her cantankerous client into going to London to accept a prestigious award; she is also nervous about the fact that Alice still hasn’t delivered her latest manuscript but excited at the rumours that it could be a sequel to the sensational early book.
Alice agrees to the trip but very grandly declares that she cannot fly, so her cowed agent suggests the ocean liner alternative, with Alice giving a lecture to get a freebie. Alice agrees, but only if she also gets tickets for three other people: her adored nephew (Lucas Hedges) and her two best friends from college, Susan (Dianne Wiest), a high-flying lawyer, and Roberta (Candice Bergen), who sells lingerie in a department store. Things get tense when it becomes clear Roberta is convinced that Alice’s great first book was actually about her, and that the book destroyed her life. Moreover, Alice’s agent has also sneaked on board, to keep an eye on her author – and Alice’s nephew is beginning to fall in love with her.
In some ways, Let Them All Talk is a very agreeable throwback to the cinema’s antique world of love-boat romance on luxury ocean liners – the world of An Affair to Remember, Now, Voyager, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and even James Cameron’s Titanic. There is, in fact, very little movie talk, though in one conversation Chan’s character talks about her love for a certain “comedy of errors”, which would appear to be the French movie Priceless with Audrey Tautou and Gad Elmaleh. I myself am not so keen.
Let Them All Talk has two emotional registers. For the older generation, it is the rather wan but droll language of worldly regret, managing the anxieties and disappointments of old age. And Alice and Susan, despite their material achievements, are not free of these. Nor is Roberta – she is angry and trying to maximise this opportunity by nabbing a rich single guy on the ship (a little like Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) – but her rage, and the real danger that she represents, is muffled by the keynote of gossipy larkiness that is sustained throughout the film and only flares out at the very end.
The younger generation is represented by Alice’s agent and her nephew – although there is a serious age gap between the thirtysomething and the twentysomething. There is the opportunity for real passion, real excitement and real heartbreak in this farcically contrived pairing, but it fizzles out and Soderbergh and Eisenberg cut their key conversation before it ends.
Of course, everything has to be about Streep, and her character hovers between the grande-dame hauteur she shows to almost everyone and the gentle ditsiness she shows to her nephew. Is she a black-comic dragon or a bittersweet lonely woman? The ambiguity is perhaps not entirely intentional. It is a voyage of adventure, but not really of discovery.
• Let Them All Talk is released on 10 December on HBO Max in the US.