Argentinian author César Aira doesn’t work the way other writers do: Most mornings, according to routine, Aira takes a seat at a Buenos Aires café and picks up where he left off, responding to what he sees around him. His is a spontaneous style, shaped by chance or whatever may have happened the day before, or even by what he watched on television. “If a little bird enters into the café where I’m writing — it did happen once — it also enters into what I’m writing,” Aira has explained.
I was reminded of Aira’s method when watching “Let Them All Talk,” an HBO Max original feature in which Meryl Streep plays a novelist of considerable acclaim struggling to finish her latest novel. Her character, Alice Hughes, already has a Pulitzer and is en route to receiving the prestigious (albeit fictional) Footling Prize in the U.K. Because she can’t fly, she talks her agent Karen (Gemma Chan) into coordinating a transatlantic crossing via the Queen Mary 2, inviting old friends Susan (Dianne Wiest) and Roberta (Candice Bergen) along for support — and maybe even some kind of overdue reconciliation.
Alice appears to be blocked, wrestling with a new way to express the ideas in her head, but it’s not her process that should interest us here (apart from one or two brief glimpses, we hardly ever see Alice put pen to paper). Rather, the story may as well be director Steven Soderbergh’s wholly unconventional approach: With “Let Them All Talk,” the creatively restless helmer has made a film about writers and writing wherein nearly all the dialogue was improvised, where the less-than-two-week shoot took place on an actual Atlantic crossing and where new digital toys allowed Soderbergh to work with minimal equipment and crew.
Like Aira’s novels, “Let Them All Talk” would not be overplanned in advance, but a snapshot of this unique experience, limited — but also liberated — by whatever might be said or done on board the ship. (Let’s all thank our stars that the COVID-19 outbreak, which hit cruise vessels especially hard a few months back, wasn’t a factor in their experience. Soderbergh already checked that box with 2011’s “Contagion.”) As literary inspirations go, such an exercise also recalls France’s Oulipo movement, in which a group of writers invented arbitrary rules — such as composing a novel without using the letter “E” — in order to stimulate their creativity.
In interviews, the cast has claimed that the script by Deborah Eisenberg was more of a blueprint, establishing the characters and a rough outline of various key scenes, and the accomplished ensemble took it from there. This is an imperfect way to make a movie, but one that has — in this case, at least — inspired a kind of warmth and wisdom that might have felt cloying or false if made according to a conventional screenplay. (Then again, Streep and Wiest and Bergen are all pros, and it’s hard to imagine them delivering unconvincing performances if granted the gift of scripted dialogue.)
As everyone from Robert Altman to Judd Apatow to the Duplass brothers have shown, some actors respond better to the demands of improvisation than others: That invitation to invention can make a film come alive, but it can also create a kind of pressure to be “on” — to do or say something memorable in the moment — and this cast is hugely variable in its aptitude for off-the-cuff brilliance. Streep is always a pleasure to watch, and her character is so much in her own head that her somewhat distracted-sounding delivery seems entirely plausible coming from a woman who overthinks everything.
Bergen’s Roberta, by contrast, is the bull in the china shop here, a tough Texas divorcée still upset at Alice for writing a character whom she believes was based on herself. She blames the book for ruining her marriage, and in a running joke, seems to care more about auditioning rich replacement husbands than in spending time with her old friend. (Are the men she’s hitting on fellow actors, or did Soderbergh turn her loose on actual passengers?) Wiest is more soft-spoken, and it falls to her to play the mediator between friends she hasn’t seen in 30 years. We see her reading alone in her room as often as interacting with her friends. One doesn’t have to be an author to have a profound understanding of human nature, and when Susan opens her mouth, she displays a keen insight into human psychology.
The wild card here is Lucas Hedges, who plays Alice’s nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges). Alice has no children of her own, but has enlisted the young man as an assistant for the voyage, and he agrees, in awe of her and optimistic that he “might learn something” from these older women. Hedges undertook a similar trip in Azazel Jacobs’ “French Exit,” and one can sense the difference a screenplay makes in his performance there, whereas Soderbergh relies a bit too much on Hedges’ character to stir things up: Tyler develops an instant crush on Karen, who leverages that dynamic, using him to spy on Alice’s progress. These scenes feel like something out of a French farce, where wittier wordplay typically accompanies all the opening and closing of doors and declarations of amour.
One of Eisenberg’s more inspired contributions comes in the form of another novelist (Dan Algrant), a bestselling thriller writer whom Tyler recognizes on the cruise, and whose process differs considerably from Alice’s. This genial hack is one of several supporting characters whom Eisenberg weaves throughout, making the film feel as if it’s engaged with the ship as a whole — as when Streep delivers a lecture for a packed house of passengers — and not just a case of five actors doing scenes in quiet corners during off hours. Soderbergh even pokes around behind the scenes, featuring glimpses of the staff cooking and doing laundry — a callback to films like “Bubble” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” where context isn’t always glamorous.
As in those projects — made possible by innovations in digital equipment — versatility matters more than perfect framing and lighting to Soderbergh, who handles cinematography and editing duties under the pseudonyms of Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, respectively. There are a few genuinely striking scenes, as when he dollies through the on-board library to watch Alice looking to see if her books are included, but also a great deal of rudimentary shot/reverse-shot constructions, where he’s clearly focused more on capturing the conversation than worrying about the harsh light streaming in over someone’s shoulder.
The ending doesn’t really work, and a series of epilogues with the various characters feel forced and unconvincing, but it’s a treat to see these actors together in such a setting (the ship itself supplies most of the film’s production value). Still, it’s probably best to think of this as either an experiment or an exercise, Soderbergh’s way of challenging himself yet again. What results may not be literature exactly, but it broadens other creators’ of idea of what the medium can do.