January 22, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

“Let Them All Talk” review: Meryl Streep and pals at play

It’s one of the surest signs of directorial freedom that a filmmaker can go loose with legends, be arty yet entertaining, and produce work that’s fleet of foot without seeming flighty. Steven Soderbergh is in that kind of phase now with his movie career, looking for ways to push himself yet not push away the audience. In that respect, “Let Them All Talk,” a layered serving of ego comedy and wise melancholy surrounding a high-toned author played by Meryl Streep on a trip with old friends (Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen), satisfies as it should. Sometimes, in the long scheme of a director’s highs, lows and whiffs, it’s nice to get a bite — not necessarily a meal — that’s as tasty as it looks.

What went into this morsel, however, speaks to a mindset eager to play and be challenged. Soderbergh got celebrated short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg to birth a detailed synopsis — her first work for film — but then had the cast improvise the dialogue. Set largely on the Queen Mary 2 as it traverses the Atlantic, Soderbergh opted to film it amidst real passengers in less than two weeks, with a new digital camera and minimal crew.

The result is something refined, naturalistic, specific, enigmatic and funny — not unlike an Eisenberg story, for one thing — but also akin to any trip one might make in a reflective yet anxious state of mind, with people you think you know but might be unsure about.

Alice (Streep) is a Pulitzer-winning Manhattanite with a new, young agent, Karen (Gemma Chan), and a secretive new book she’s struggling to complete. She’s counting on the voyage to England — to pick up a hallowed literary prize — to provide valuable writing time and a chance to catch up with the college pals she insisted come along: gentle Seattle grandmother Susan (Wiest) and hard-edged Dallas retail worker Roberta (Bergen). To help manage her friends’ time when focusing on work, Alice also brings along her good-natured 20-something nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) as a de facto assistant, but what she doesn’t know is that Karen is also onboard, and that the agent has enlisted eager-to-please Tyler to get intel for her on his aunt’s progress.

What soon becomes apparent is how much decades out of touch have separated the friends and stiffened their attempts to reconnect. Roberta, in particular — when not scanning the passengers for a rich companion — harbors a long-standing resentment toward Alice for perceived appropriation of her sordid, hard-luck life for book material.

If it all sounds mildly farcical — especially when Tyler develops a crush on Karen — it’s never whipped up as such. Soderbergh is more interested in character humor from a look or an exchange, or wry details like cutting between the women being escorted onto the ship, and the transportation of their suitcases through the lower decks — the “baggage” we can expect to surface at some point. Ever the conscientious cinematographer, he knows when to capture the vastness of the luxury liner in ways that suggest either a floating island for restless souls or a place where intimacy can flourish.

Dianne Wiest, left, and Candice Bergen in the movie “Let Them All Talk.”

(Peter Andrews / HBO Max)

Streep is expectedly good at haughty neurosis flecked with self-awareness, Bergen as her straight-talking counterpart is a delight, and Wiest navigates the space in between with an affable emotional intelligence. Hedges and Chan never treat their scenes like side fluff, and the result is a storyline with its own will-they-won’t-they appeal. And roaming the perimeter is Dan Algrant, terrific as a successful thriller author whose presence on the ship changes the molecules in this constellation of characters.

What you won’t get from “Let Them All Talk” is some memorable moral inquisition into authors who mine others’ lives. It’s a shading one wishes at times was more defined considering the talent involved. But even when the mode is sketch, not full-on portrait or tableau, Soderbergh and company show a pleasurable amount of skill.

‘Let Them All Talk’

Rated: R for language

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: Available Dec. 10 on HBO MAX