Review: Streep invites us on a pleasing, meandering ride

It’s safe to say this isn’t a great time for the cruise ship industry.

Given that obvious fact, Cunard is likely to be thrilled that a new movie has come out which takes place — or 90 percent of it — on the Queen Mary 2, with its gleaming dining rooms, sparkling 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 absorbing film that feels, alas, a little unfinished and a touch too improvisational, is not its plot nor its impeccable pedigree — it stars Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen — but the glimpse it affords us of a luxury “crossing.”

Think “Titanic,” but without the sinking. Or the class struggle. Or the raft/door that Leo somehow couldn’t fit on.

But we digress. What you need to know is that a crossing from New York to Southampton, England, takes seven days, and so “Let Them All Talk,” about a successful yet insecure novelist traveling to London to accept a prize, was mostly filmed in one week in 2019. Soderbergh, who relishes such challenges, apparently did his editing in the ship’s bar at night. Another tantalizing tidbit from the film’s production notes: In order not to disturb paying customers, the ship made participating in the film one of the daily activity choices. As in: Trivia contest on Deck 4, or Movie-making with Meryl on Deck 2!

Streep is perfectly cast as Alice, who won a Pulitzer for one of her novels but is so self-doubting, she criticizes people for complimenting it. Alice has just won another coveted award, but tells her literary agent Karen (an excellent Gemma Chan) that she’s unable to fly. Karen suggests traveling by ship instead. Alice agrees, as long as she can bring guests — two old college buddies and her nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges, engaging as always.)

What’s not clear is why exactly Alice has asked along her friends, Susan (Wiest) and Roberta (Bergen), since it’s been decades since she’s seen them. Why now?

Roberta has a suspicion. She’s been carrying a grudge for years because she’s certain Alice co-opted details of her messy marriage in her novel, “You Always/You Never.” And now Roberta, who’s divorced and fallen on hard times as a lingerie saleswoman, suspects Alice wants to use her life again, in a sequel.

Actually, nobody’s sure whether Alice is writing a sequel — only that she’s writing something. Karen is so nervous about the new book, she secretly books passage on the ship so she can spy on Alice from afar. This isn’t a very convincing plot point, but it allows for a potential romance between Karen and the younger Tyler.

If the dialogue sounds unpracticed, that’s because it is. The screenplay by Deborah Eisenberg is more an extended outline; the actors themselves largely improvised. While that allows for some refreshing spontaneity, it doesn’t always work as well as it should.

The actors, of course, are pros. Bergen is terrific at hostility bubbling underneath a thin veneer of good manners, and she has a lot more to work with than Wiest, who’s somewhat wasted as a soft-spoken peacemaker. Bergen’s angry glare alone is something to behold.

As for Streep, she’s never less than compelling, and a last-minute twist to the story makes you want to go back and analyze her scenes again, for hints.

But there’s one laugh-out-loud moment that’s classic Streep, when she’s speaking with a mass-market thriller writer on board. She asks him, at dinner, how long it takes to write one of his books, but hesitates just a nanosecond before saying “books,” and flits her fingers just so — a devastatingly dismissive gesture, executed with perfect economy.

The costumes by Ellen Mirojnick have a wonderfully lived-in feel, perhaps because they were selected from the actors’ own closets. It will surprise nobody to learn Streep has lots of gorgeous, voluminous scarves.

They’re lovely to look at — as is Alice’s luxurious, two-story suite. But we also envy the real passengers mingling over drinks or tea. It’s not just the luxury. It’s the fact that they can travel at all. Sigh.

Eventually, the movie does seem to get where it’s going. A scene between Alice and Roberta touches upon issues of literary ownership and artistic license that haven’t yet been fully mined. It’s a bit late in the game. But the ride has been pleasant.

“Let Them All Talk,” an HBO Max release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for language.” Running time: 113 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

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MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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