Let Them All Talk is what happens when multiple people who don't have to prove a god damned thing to you or me or anyone else all get together and don't prove it together. Herein is a film that director Steven Soderbergh conceived of, in the abstract, many years before he commissioned a script treatment from much-laureled short story writer Deborah Eisenberg; that script proceeded to serve less as blueprint than as a broad framework. The shoot mostly occurred aboard the ocean liner Queen Mary 2 during a crossing from New York to Southampton in August 2019, where Soderbergh (serving as his own cinematographer, as he usually does) led a skeleton crew to throw together shots right there on the boat, in full view of random passengers (who in turn showed up as de facto extras), using almost nothing but available lighting. The story was more or less set, and the dialogue was more or less improvised by the main cast: Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges, and Gemma Chan. And other than a few minutes at the start setting the scenario in motion and a few more minutes at the end wrapping it up (very unsatisfactorily, I might say), that's the whole movie.

The film that results from this is, of course, shaggy as all hell, but it's a kind of focused shagginess; Soderbergh's editing (for he served as his own editor too, as he usually does) is awfully tight, especially in scenes that bring together three or more of the cast members, and he starts to play with the undertones of the scene, not just the basic matter of who's talking and who's responding. Late in the film, all five leads are gathered at a table, something that only happens this one time in the whole film, and Soderbergh perversely favors holding on Hedges, who is doing the least talking and the most listening, thereby redefining the scene as based around listening, and in a sense reminding us that part of what the title has already informed us is that Let Them All Talk is in some way an exercise in seeing what Streep, Bergen, and Wiest will come up with if you just let them go.

This could only possibly work with a filmmaking team that is confident as hell and past the point that they give a shit. There are probably other groups of three than the Streep-Bergen-Wiest combination that could do this, but they're particularly good at it; Bergen is as pure in her don't-give-a-shit energy as any working actress, I might go so far as to say, which is perhaps why she's also giving Let Them All Talk its best performance (helped out by having the most complicated character to play; I regret very much to say that Wiest, who is on paper my favorite member of this cast by an order of magnitude, also gets the most purely functional, surface-level role). I might also add that Hedges and Chan, compared to the three grande dames they're sharing the screen with, do have to give at least a bit of a shit still, and it's definitely no coincidence that in a film that is almost entirely propelled by unbelievably casual hanging out, Hedges sticks out like a sore thumb in his very articulated acting choices. Fortunately, Soderbergh - who is maybe the best director we have right now at using actors' limitations to his benefit* - has anticipated this and worked it into the movie; Hedges is meant to feel a bit awkward and out of place, a bit too ready and eager to do what's asked while the older women around him simply barrel on through their scenes.

The film is probably best enjoyed as an exercise in seeing how performances construct themselves across scenes, mixed with an exercise in seeing how much visual artistry can be extracted from a shoot that's basically using no light, no production design, and no camera crew; I am much fonder of Soderbergh's many experiments in the former vein than his late-career obsession with the later, but at any rate, Let Them All Talk is very good at both. It's definitely less readily enjoyed on its merits as a story, though one it exists, and it manages to go to some challenging places. Alice Hughes (Streep) is a much-respected novelist, who is stonewalling her publisher, in the person of Karen (Chan), on the status, or even the content, of her new work, though it may be a sequel; everybody hopes it's a sequel to the career-making bestseller that she has since come to loudly hate in public, and Karen is hoping to figure this out ASAP. Alice has been announced to receive a extraordinarily prestigious prize, and she refuses to fly to get it; Karen thus suggests that she take a boat trip, with her estranged best friends Roberta (Bergen) and Susan (Wiest), as well as her beloved nephew Tyler (Hedges). Karen also sneaks on the boat, using Tyler as her go-between and spy; he falls in love with her. Susan is confused why, after all these years, Alice has decided now to get the whole gang back together; Roberta is convinced that it has something to do with the time that Alice stole details from Roberta's life for that same beloved bestseller, the event that soured their relationship. Alice, for her part, is just being imperious and shitty, the very model of an out-of-control literary egotist who refuses to consider even as an abstract possibility that she might ever interact with someone on her own intellectual level.

For nearly all of the film's running time, this scenario fuels scenes of the characters interacting in different permutations with no obvious urgency to those interactions; as much as anything, Let Them All Talk is about the magnificent joy of having the good fortune to be in a situation where life has been slowed down for you, and you can do nothing but relax in the languorous moments as they crawl by. It is, very much, the film equivalent of deciding, in 2019, to take a damned ocean liner across the Atlantic: sedate in an abnormally privileged way, almost showy and obnoxious in how pointedly inefficient it's going to be about getting to any place in particular (this conspicuous awareness of slowed-down luxury ties in nicely with the omnipresent but rarely stated thread of class jealousy: Susan doesn't appear to have money and Roberta definitely doesn't, to judge from her awful retail job, and Alice's gift of a free ocean voyage is, maybe on purpose, a way of reminding them that she's more successful than they are. Accordingly, Bergen's performance always seems tetchy and uncomfortably constrained by the film's rhythms, while Streep's portrayal of Alice's self-regard falls right into those rhythms).

This translates into a lot of scenes that are going to do what they're going to do, and we can take it or get stuffed; fortunately, most of Let Them All Talk is pretty funny, or at least airily clever in the way of literate types. Like everything else, the humor lives and dies on the actors, but there's a lot of comic training in this cast, and the result is a hell of a lot of almost instinctively perfect timing. If nothing else, Wiest is always on hand to make sure that there's a tart undercurrent of sarcastic humor to keep things from getting too sedate and tangled up in the static quality of it all.

As lovely as this is, there does come a time when it starts to feel like the movie is running out of ways to extend this experiment; 113 minutes is quite a long time to keep something shapeless on purpose, and by the time the second half rolls around, it's tough to say that the shapelessness is actually producing anything we haven't already seen, or that the actors are finding new angles on their characters. So eventually, the film punts, and gives us a final act that suddenly injects plot into all of this, very specifically raises conflicts, and gives us some reveals that explain some of the behavior we've seen in the movie up to that point, and I really don't think it much works at all. For one thing, it hangs Bergen and her character out to dry, an unfair fate for the best member of a very good ensemble. For another, the film's chief appeal, by a whole lot, is in watching three AAA-level veterans riff with each other as their director riffs along with them - the best parts of the movie are basically a filmmaking jazz quartet, an impression literalised by Thomas Newman's jazz-flavored score. It's playful and energetic, an exploration made in a spirit of bright curiosity. The finale pins everything down, makes it gloomy, and replaces all of the light, casual riffing with straightforward acting. I'm sure there's some reason Soderbergh and Eisenberg thought this would be for the best, but I'm not seeing it, and I don't have to like it. Still, that's the risk of thinking on your feet and improvising momentum; if it breaks, it's going to break all the way. And if a clunky ending is what it takes to get the loose, flexible creativity of the first four-fifths of the movie, it's a small price.

*Cf. everything from Out of Sight to Erin Brockovoch to Haywire to Logan Lucky, and plenty more where those came from.