Meryl Streep is Alice Hughes, a demanding well-renowned writer struggling to complete her newest manuscript. Karen (Gemma Chan) is her young new agent. Desperate to discover whether Alice is writing a sequel to her biggest bestseller, “You Always. You Never,” Karen engineers a cruise for the writer. See, Alice is being awarded the fictional Footling Prize. But the award ceremony takes place in the UK, and for reasons unknown, she can’t fly. So Karen offers her the seven-day transatlantic cruise aboard the Queen Mary 2, as a way to not only transport her to the UK, but to ascertain the contents of Alice’s manuscript by spying on her. Conversely, Alice sees the trip as a way to reconnect with her scattered-across-the-country college friends.
In the thirty years since they last convened, much has changed between the once-close friends. Susan (Dianne Wiest) councils women prisoners seeking parole in Seattle. The now-bitter Roberta (Candice Bergen) works a dead-end job selling women’s lingerie in Dallas. Alice also asks her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges), to who she’s a surrogate mother in the face of his troubled family life, to accompany the trio so he might chaperone her friends while she works on her manuscript. The quartet, with Karen as an addition, is an ever-reconfiguring puzzle.
Especially when another piece, an enigmatic man (John Douglas Thompson) following Alice, is inserted. Their completion will settle old feuds and bring forth few answers.
Steven Soderbergh’s latest collaboration with Streep is a marked improvement over their last. Soderbergh’s jazzy musing freewheeling hangout movie, “Let Them All Talk,” is a return to form for him, and offers curious subplots enriched by an adroit ensemble.
As with his prior film “The Laundromat,” there’s a rushed feel to “Let Them All Talk.” While it’s refreshing to see Hedges play a somewhat well-adjusted person, as he so often portrays drug addicts and young men with daddy issues, his burgeoning attraction to the literary agent Karen, is never believable. Tyler is feeding information about Alice’s manuscript to Karen. Their fact-sharing rendezvous, which double as dates, are trite amusements lacking in weight. Rather their romance is a low-stakes oft-forgotten detour that lays somewhere between underdeveloped and shouldn’t have been developed at all.
When it comes to Alice spending time with her friends, Soderbergh teases that Alice’s intentions might be less than genuine. Much like Karen uses Tyler to spy on Alice, the latter intends to learn about her friends’ state of mind. She wants to know what they’re struggling with and where they are in their lives. Her estranged friends’ interests could be interpreted as either real or writerly research for her next book. That mystery adds to the slippery undercurrent of Alice and Roberta’s fragile relationship.
Roberta is broke. Alone. And searching for a man to care for her financially in the winter of her life. While on the cruise, she spends much of her time at the bar, the casino, and a masquerade ball skulking the joint for a well-off suitor. She also carries a deep grudge against Alice. See, Alice might have drawn from Roberta’s personal life for her prized bestseller “You Always. You Never.” Leading Roberta’s husband to divorce her. Ever since then, for thirty years, her life has been adrift. And she believes she’s owed something for her troubles. Alice’s repeated overtures to grab a drink with Roberta are rebuked by the latter. Roberta’s suspicions cause the viewer to pause: Maybe Alice’s intentions aren’t wholly genuine?
Of the trio: Susan is the peacemaker, often granting advice to her friends. Sage simple Susan is an absolute sweetheart with a surprising talent for stringing together expletives. When her son relates how his business partner froze him out of their venture, in a pointed scene, Susan threatens, “Don’t let that motherfucker near me.” You haven’t lived until you hear Wiest’s gentle voice say “motherfucker” with the rhythm of a grandma who’s burned her cookies, or when she says “Bow down, bitch” with the tenacity of the same grandmother on bingo night.
With her background of helping incarcerated women, some of who have used varying methods of murder, Susan catches the eye of gentleman-mystery writer Kelvin Kranz (Dan Algrant), who also happens to be on the cruise. When Alice and Kranz meet, they are a difficult mix. With her thick-rimmed black glasses, endless glitzy shawls, and a voluminous updo, she’s a dead ringer for the literary elite, or Streep on a normal day. The snobbish Alice views the one-man publishing industry, as some describe him, with the interest of a cat lying in the sun.
Soderbergh is curious about the valuation of literature, from the capital “L” word to the mercantile place of it, and it’s one of the film’s light meals. Easily chewable, but rarely satisfying. As is Alice’s wish to visit fictional author Blodwyn Pugh’s grave in the UK. And her insistence, which relates to the obscure legacy of Pugh, that her less-than-successful novel “The Function of the Body” is her true masterpiece and not “You Always. You Never.”
Rather it’s Bergen, who provides frank bitter deliveries, and Streep, who plays the role of facilitator to her co-leads, who should receive more to work with. Alice is a writer struggling to write. And Alice and Roberta’s fraught friendship is building to obliteration. Both require sharper plot points to make either character arc tangible. With Thomas Newman’s leisurely jazzy score, “Let Them All Talk” has the caper feel of “Oceans 11,” quite literally set on the ocean. Yet the film isn’t nearly as upbeat as the heist flick, as time passes by as languidly as the endless surrounding waters.
The veteran cast sells much of the shortcomings in Deborah Eisenberg’s script, allowing us to luxuriate in the characters’ regrets, gripes, and idiosyncrasies. Even so, Eisenberg’s inchoate script gets one thing right, and that’s the gut-punch third act reveal, and the later aftermath. No one in this film changes. Their whims and regrets remain the same. There’s an uneasy feeling of seeing unrepentant people continue undaunted. There’s a comfort to the often-ignored talent that is finally discovered. And a calm that washes over when roots are dug up. “Let Them All Talk” is a wistful mystery film that, in the end, finds a worthwhile story between friends. [B]