Review: Streep invites us to a pleasant, meandering ride
It’s safe to say that this is not a good time for the cruise industry.
With this obvious fact in mind, Cunard is likely to be thrilled that a new movie has come out that – or 90 percent – takes place on the Queen Mary 2, with its gleaming dining rooms, glistening ocean views, disco nights and afternoon teas.
In fact, one of the most interesting things about Steven Soderbergh’s “Let Them All Talk,” a clever and suspenseful film that unfortunately feels a little unfinished and a little too improvisational, is neither its plot nor its pristine pedigree – it stars Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen – but a look at them offers us a luxurious “crossing”.
Think of “Titanic” but without sinking. Or the class struggle. Or the raft / door that Leo somehow couldn’t fit.
But we digress. What you need to know is that a crossing from New York to Southampton, England takes seven days. Therefore, “Let Them All Talk” about a successful but insecure writer who travels to London to receive a prize was shot mostly in a week. Soderbergh, who enjoys such challenges, has apparently cut the ship’s bar at night. Another tempting tidbit from the movie’s production notes: In order not to disturb paying customers, the ship made taking part in the movie one of its daily activities. As in: Trivia competition on deck 4 or filmmaking with Meryl on deck 2!
Streep is perfectly cast as Alice, who won a Pulitzer for one of her novels but is so self-doubtful that she criticizes people for complimenting him. Alice has just won another coveted award but tells her literary agent Karen (an excellent Gemma Chan) that she cannot fly. Karen suggests taking the ship instead. Alice agrees as long as she can bring guests – two old college friends and their nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges, committed as always).
What isn’t clear is why exactly Alice has been asking her friends Susan (Wiest) and Roberta (Bergen) since they saw her decades ago. Why now?
Roberta has a suspicion. She has held a grudge for years for being certain that Alice co-opted details of her chaotic marriage in her novel “You Always / You Never”. And now Roberta, who is divorced and got into tough times as a lingerie saleswoman, suspects that Alice would like to use her life again in a sequel.
Actually, no one is sure whether Alice will write a sequel – just that she is writing something. Karen is so nervous about the new book that she secretly books a passage on the ship so she can spy on Alice from afar. This isn’t a very convincing plot point, but it does allow for a possible romance between Karen and the younger Tyler.
If the dialogue sounds untrained, it’s because it is. Deborah Eisenberg’s script is more of an expanded structure; The actors themselves largely improvised. While this allows for refreshing spontaneity, it doesn’t always work as it should.
The actors are of course professionals. Bergen is great at hostilities that bubble under a thin veneer of good manners, and she has a lot more to do than Wiest, who is a bit wasted as a soft-spoken peacemaker. Bergen’s angry look alone is something to see.
As for Streep, she’s never less than convincing, and a last-minute twist on the story makes you go back and re-analyze her scenes for clues.
But there’s a laughing moment that’s classic Streep when she’s talking to a mass-market thriller writer on board. Over dinner, she asks him how long it will take to write one of his books, but hesitates a nanosecond before saying “books” and moves her fingers – a devastatingly dismissive gesture done with perfect frugality.
Ellen Mirojnick’s costumes look wonderful, perhaps because they were chosen from the actors’ closets. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Streep has lots of beautiful, voluminous scarves.
They’re beautiful to look at – just like Alice’s luxurious two-story suite. But we also envy the real passengers who chat over drinks or tea. It’s not just the luxury. It is the fact that they can travel at all. Sigh.
After all, the film seems to be getting where it is going. A scene between Alice and Roberta touches on issues of literary property and artistic license that have not yet been fully dismantled. It’s a little late in the game. But the ride was pleasant.
“Let Them All Talk,” a HBO Max release, was rated an “R for Speech” by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 113 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. A parent or adult guardian is required for children under 17.
BY JOCELYN NOVECK
AP National Writer