Some viewers may decide that Steven Soderbergh's new movie reminds them of the work of John Cassavetes. Dialogue in Let Them All Talk can feel improvised, the movie's structure slowly reveals character and the whole enterprise relies heavily on its actors.
The same could be said about most Cassavetes movies. But Cassavetes often seemed to elbow his way toward urgent truths that were deeply embodied in performance. Soderbergh's approach is more casual, elegant even.
Working from a screenplay by Deborah Eisenberg, Soderbergh places his cast on the Queen Mary 2 as they journey from New York to London. Luxe onboard settings can't entirely calm the tensions that ripple among three women played by Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest.
Streep's Alice Hughes has sponsored the trip, which Soderbergh filmed on an actual eight-day Atlantic crossing.
A novelist, Alice has been awarded a literary prize and must travel to London to receive it. She refuses to fly so her publisher books her on the Queen Mary 2. She insists that she take two friends from college along.
And let's be honest: The suites, decks and restaurants on the Queen Mary II give the movie an additional layer of pleasure.
Bergen's Roberta lives in Texas. Because her marriage to a wealthy man crumbled, she's been reduced to selling lingerie in a department store. A Seattle resident, Wiest's Susan devotes her life to advocating for women in prison.
Alice's nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) accompanies his aunt, as well. Young and smart, he's supposed to keep tabs on Alice's friends while she attends to her latest manuscript.
Alice doesn't know that her literary agent (Gemma Chan) also has boarded the ship. She's eager to learn whether Alice's new the new book will be a sequel to her best-received work.
Bergen gives the movie's most outsized performance. Dressed in near-parodic Texas style, Robert overtly scans the ship for wealthy prospects, as if her rights have been violated by no longer being rich.
Roberta also believes that Alice appropriated part of her life for her book. She feels betrayed and does her best to keep contact with Alice to a minimum.
Initially, Wiest's Susan seems the most timid of the three, but as the story unfolds, she emerges as a woman of substance. She and Roberta often are seen playing games (Scrabble or Monopoly). When she wins, Susan turns a simple phrase into a surprisingly resonant statement of character.
"Bow down, bitch," she orders Roberta.
To further complicate matters, Alice not only must contend with her friends but with the presence on the ship of Kelvin Kranz (Dan Algrant), a super-successful mystery writer.
Despite initial efforts to belittle Kelvin, Alice eventually acknowledges that he's a decent man who speaks perceptively about her work. Alice, of course, sees herself as a literary figure. A formulaic writer, Kranz neither deludes himself nor apologizes for what he is.
So what about Streep? Her portrait of Alice might be the most meticulously conceived of the three women. Alice never seems entirely comfortable around her old college pals or perhaps anyone else for that matter. Sometimes, it seems as if speech has become an effort for her.
Let Them All Talk demands one more comment. When aging male actors are brought together for movies, they usually try to reenact their youths, often making fools of themselves.
Here, we watch three accomplished actors flirting with cliche but subverting it in favor of something Soderbergh has the good sense to appreciate: The imaginative exploration of character.