“Let Them All Talk” is a loose, chatty movie, basically a slow-moving cruise with some terrific actors sorting things out (and the director ain’t bad, either).
Steven Soderbergh’s new film (★★★½ stars out of five; rated R; streaming Thursday on HBO Max) – retirement still isn’t working out for him, happily – brings together Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen on a real-life trans-Atlantic voyage of the Queen Mary 2. The script by Deborah Eisenberg reportedly served as more of an outline for the cast. However they worked it out, it’s a good, not great, movie and another chapter in Soderbergh’s continually evolving process of filmmaking.
Streep plays Alice, a writer famous and respected in literary circles with a Pulitzer Prize-winning book under her belt and a few less-regarded works that she naturally prefers. The film opens with her talking to her new agent, Karen (Gemma Chan), about her latest book, which she’s customarily secretive about.
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She’s receiving a British literary prize, Karen notes – maybe she’d like to accept in person? But Alice doesn’t fly. Karen works out the cruise, which Alice will accept if she can invite two old college friends she hasn’t seen in years, along with her nephew.
Susan (Wiest) and Barbara (Bergen) are surprised at the invitation. They’ve fallen out of touch. Susan is a social worker. Barbara is an unapologetic gold-digger, who jumps at the chance to sail with a potential rich husband. But she also wants to confront Alice about the Pulitzer-winning book, which she believes is based on the secrets of her own marriage she confided to Alice. The book, she contends, ruined her marriage and her life.
Meanwhile Karen is also on board, in secret, trying to figure out what the new book is about (everyone hopes it’s a sequel to the Pulitzer novel). She and Tyler (Lucas Hedges), Alice’s nephew, begin flirting; she enlists Tyler to help her suss out the subject matter.
It’s really just heightened personal drama played out over a couple hours. But the acting is so comfortably genuine that it’s a really enjoyable ride. Streep is good – you may have heard that a time or two – at bringing some empathy to a self-centered writer who no longer connects with the world outside her own interests. (Did she always talk that way, her friends wonder? The consensus is no, she did not.) Streep lets some self-awareness creep in to the character, which helps.
Bergen nails a tricky role. It’s the brash way she approaches Barbara’s mercenary ways that makes the character work. She has no self-pity (well, maybe a little) and no shame (definitely not). Wiest may be the best of the bunch. Her delivery of surprising lines is delightful. Her delivery of less surprising lines is, too.
But what makes the film hang together are small moments, like those provided by Dan Algrant as Kelvin Kranz, a stratospherically popular mystery writer of the Dean Koontz variety who is also on board the ship. Naturally Alice looks down her nose at Kranz. Naturally Susan and Barbara have read piles of his books. There’s a great scene in which Alice browses through the ship’s bookstore and finds some of her books– and a ton of Kranz’s.
There’s an even better couple of scenes when we learn more about Kranz’s approach to his work and just his unassuming attitude in general. Alice could learn something from him. Maybe she does.
There’s a low-energy mystery about another character on the ship who proves to be both crucial and extraneous at the same time, a neat trick.
But the film is ultimately an excuse to watch and enjoy Streep, Wiest and Bergen. Sometimes roles for outstanding actors who aren’t in their 20s and 30s anymore wind up being embarrassing misfires (see the cloying “And So It Goes” or “Book Club” for examples or, better yet, don’t see them). That’s not the case here. “Let Them All Talk” is a low-key success.
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