‘Let Them All Talk’: Meryl Streep Captains Steven Soderbergh’s Improvised Dramedy

Oscar-winning actor Meryl Streep sets sail to play fictional Pulitzer-winning author Alice Hughes in Steven Soderbergh’s “Let Them All Talk.” Joining Alice on her journey is her young nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges), who becomes her assistant, as well as two of her oldest friends, college chums Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest). A lot has been left unsaid since the ladies last got together 35 years prior, so a transatlantic crossing seems like the perfect opportunity to catch up. However, a lot has changed in three and a half decades, especially for Alice and Roberta, and Alice’s strict work routine and a ship full of distractions don’t exactly make for the smoothest voyage.

Also joining in on the adventure is Karen (Gemma Chan), a thirty-something literary agent who has just taken over looking after Alice. When we first meet Alice, she is about to be honored with the prestigious Footling Prize in England. After informing Karen that she is unable to fly, Karen comes up with the idea for her to take the Queen Mary 2, and Alice agrees to this on the condition that she can take her two friends and her nephew. The author also mentions to the agent that she is planning to write a sequel to one of her novels, which puts Karen on edge, so much so that she ends up booking herself on a seat on the Queen Mary in order to keep tabs on her star client. She doesn’t tell Alice this. Instead, she uses Tyler as her willing spy. 

Once everyone is checked in on the ship, Alice informs her nephew and her friends that, because she is in the thick of writing her new book, she will have very limited time to socialize outside of nightly dinners. This being a free trip, her guests have little room to complain. Emotional intimacy, it turns out, isn’t something that comes naturally to Alice, and she uses Tyler as an intermediary, taxing him with keeping an eye on Roberta and Susan and reporting back to her on how they’re doing. Roberta turns out to be a tough one to crack, as she ends up actively avoiding Alice. It turns out, she is resentful towards her old friend, because the last time they were together, she opened up about her tumultuous marriage. Afterwards, Alice took Roberta’s very personal life and used it as the basis for a hit book, which led to Roberta’s messy divorce. Alice is ignorant of her friend’s feelings or the fact that she’s working up to asking her for some financial compensation.

Interestingly, there was no traditional screenplay for “Let Them All Talk.” It was written by short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg, who created only the characters and a rough outline of potential plot developments. Soderbergh let the cast improvise much of the dialogue, and while this was a gamble, with Streep as the captain, he knew that there was little chance that the film would sink. The result is a film that has a narrative that is far from cohesive, but is overall still striking for its little moments, such as as those revolved around Alice’s preoccupation with paying respects to an underappreciated dead Brit woman writer, Roberta’s quest to snag a rich man, and Susan and Roberta’s fanning over Kelvin Krantz (Dan Algrant), a popular mystery writer on the ship, something Alice can barely conceal her annoyance over. The cast also includes John Douglas Thompson as a fellow passenger whom Tyler believes Alice is sleeping with. The true nature of their relationship turns out to be far less spicy.

There are also some great bonding moments between Alice and Tyler, who we get the impression didn’t really know each other that well on a personal level before this trip. Hedges holds his own with the veteran actresses, and the most developed subplot in the whole film involves his relationship with Karen, as the two end up confiding in each other about more than just Alice, which leads to some fanciful ideas on Tyler’s part.

As most of “Let Them All Talk” takes place aboard a luxury liner, the film has an escapist feel. In 2020, the viewer cannot help but feel jealous of the characters as they move freely about the ship, entering casinos, dining areas, and even a disco whenever they feel like it.

Let Them All Talk” begins streaming Dec. 10 on HBO Max.