Let Them All Talk is a cruise movie running on star power. Major star power.
The acclaimed Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominaed actors include: Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen and Lucas Hedges.
At the helm is Steven Soderbergh.
Let’s be clear, we’re talking about Meryl Streep: Sophie’s Choice (1982), Out of Africa (1985) and The Devil Wears Prada (2006); Dianne Wiest (Hanna and Her Sisters (1989), Bullets Over Broadway (1994); Candice Bergen: Carnal Knowledge (1971). The Wind and the Lion (1975); and Lucas Hedges: Manchester by the Sea ((2016) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017).
We’re also talking about Steven Soderbergh: Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), Erin Brockovich (2000) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and Ocean’s Thirteen 2007).
That’s a pretty solid roster. It’s the kind of star power served up to sell movie tickets or streaming fees or subscriptions.
It caught my attention. And piqued my interest.
The story is about an aging, successful writer (Streep) who decides to take two best friends from her college days (Bergen and Wiest) and her nephew (Hedges) on a luxury, trans-Atlantic cruise to England where she plans to accept a literary award and visit the gravesite of one of her favorite authors.
Her publishing agent (Gemma Chan) sneaks along to learn what she can about the secret manuscript that superstar writer is in the process of writing.
The characters set out on a journey of self-discovery and a script brimming with possibilities.
The cruise is aboard the Queen Mary 2, traveling from New York to Southampton, and it's luxury accommodations all the way.
Part of the attraction with Let Them All Talk is the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous angle. For the movie audience, it’s a vicarious vacation that many of us could use right about now in dark days of COVID-19.
Movies have a history of providing escapism when we all need it, dating back to the Great Depression.
Scenes are staged throughout this magnificent ocean liner: the Grand Lobby, the formal dining rooms, the planetarium, and the opulent, first-class cabins.
Cruise connoisseurs will enjoy the behind-the-scenes peeks at the below-the-deck kitchens and laundry facilities. It’s a lot to see.
But all of this is background to the characters and their stories. And this is where Let Them All Talk drifts off into open water.
As the title implies, it’s all about talk. Lots and lots of talk.
Dialogue-driven movies can be entertaining and engaging and funny depending on the strength of the writing and screenplay.
In this case the screenplay only consisted of outlines of scenes with much, if not most of the dialog being improvised by the cast.
It’s a fresh, bold direction to take from a creative standpoint. A director has to place a ton of trust in his cast and their improv chops.
Sometimes it works. I’m thinking of Larry David’s hit HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm that takes this approach and with hilarious results. He makes it look easier than it is.
In this case, Soderberg turns his talent loose and lets them all talk in the hopes that chemistry and spontaneity will generate substance and story.
That pretty much doesn’t happen.
What you do get is a lot of improvised dialog that is only occasionally interesting.
It’s not the fault of these seasoned performers. It just underscores why screenwriters exist.
Traditionally, they are the most overlooked and underappreciated people in Hollywood and the movie making community.
Admittedly, they are a pretty invisible cog in the machinery of movie making.
You wonder if people think that scripts write themselves or whether they think that actors just make it up as they go along, as is the case here.
In the end, Let Them All Talk is a chance to watch some talented performers on a spectacular ship that is prominently featured.
Maybe the ship is the real star of this film. When the dialog seems to be going nowhere, we can at least glance around the frame and enjoy the scenery.
The movie could almost be a feature length promotional video for the Queen Mary 2.
It makes you wonder whether the cruise line might have hatched the idea and floated it (sorry) past Soderberg who then asked his all-star cast to come aboard and enjoy the ride. And make up their own lines.
You can’t rule that out. It would explain a lot.
Let Them All Talk begins streaming December 10 on HBO Max.