“Let Them All Talk” stars four peerless grande dames: Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, and the Queen Mary 2. It’s not clear which one leaves the biggest wake.
The movie, a wonderful end-of-year surprise whose script was outlined by short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg and then briskly improvised by the cast, debuts this week on HBO Max and comes to us courtesy of Steven Soderbergh, who put everyone on board the Queen Mary during an August 2019 trans-Atlantic crossing and told them to wing it. They did, delightfully.
Blinking with owlish arrogance behind heavy black eyeglass frames, Streep plays Alice, a celebrated but prickly author of prize-winning novels. She’s stuck on her latest, which her young agent, Karen (Gemma Chan of TV’s “Humans”), hopes will be a sequel to Alice’s biggest seller. Afraid to fly but wanting to accept an award in London, Alice agrees to travel on the Queen Mary 2, if her publisher will pay for two old college friends to come along.
They are Susan (Wiest) and Roberta (Bergen), the former gentle and not as naïve as she seems, the latter still fuming with resentment over Alice strip-mining her life for that long-ago bestseller. Also along for the ride are Alice’s twenty-something nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges of “Manchester by the Sea”), good-hearted and immature, and the agent, who flirtingly tries to pump the nephew for information on the secret new manuscript.
That’s the setup — simple, really — but the pleasure lies in watching these absurdly talented actors carom their characters off each other with witty passive-aggressiveness. Alice hides out from her friends and writes all day in her stateroom, so why did she invite them? Roberta wants to settle the score with the writer whose novel destroyed her marriage but is also desperately on the hunt for a sugar daddy. Susan is the peacemaker even as she spies her favorite writer onboard: Kelvin Krantz (Dan Algrant), a mystery author whose book sales make Alice’s look like spit in a squall.
Improvisation is death in a movie, generally speaking, and there are scenes here that fight to find their shape. Still, the combined years of experience of the leading trio make for a master class in how to sculpt dialogue, rhythm, and dramatic direction from thin air. (Hedges, no surprise, is the least skilled at the art, but it fits his character, tongue-tied in the presence of the glamorous agent he’s crushing on.) This is Streep’s richest role and best performance in some time: Alice is a complete creation, a writer who has reinvented herself so thoroughly as a Manhattan literary institution that her old friends barely recognize her. (“When did she start talking like that?” Susan asks Roberta incredulously.) Streep can sometimes hide behind the mannerisms that are her form of ham, but you don’t feel that here. You feel Alice’s superiority and her shyness — the vulnerability behind the grand edifice.
Bergen, who hasn’t had a part this juicy in even longer, bites into it with the deadpan comic timing that has always been her most underappreciated gift. (Roberta works as a clerk at a lingerie store, and the look she gives her vapid young manager in an early scene is a lesson in comedy all by itself.) Soderbergh knows he has an immense playpen of a set here, and he sends Roberta all over the Queen Mary: to the spa to cash in a courtesy coupon, to the casino to stalk the high rollers, up to the deck, down to the masquerade ball. Tyler and Karen check out the nightclub while Alice wanders down to the crew quarters, from whence she is politely escorted. At times, the camera ducks into the kitchen or down to the engine room just to see what’s there. If you haven’t left your house since March, this movie counts as a legitimate vacation.
“Let Them All Talk” eventually comes to dry land and resolves most of its storylines, but then it throws a curve that lends the tale a deeper, more meaningful satisfaction. That development alters the experience entirely and makes it stick in a viewer’s memory and emotions. What had seemed a tasty cinematic profiterole suddenly has the heft of a full meal — a banquet whipped from nothing by some of the finest chefs on land or sea.
LET THEM ALL TALK
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Deborah Eisenberg. Starring Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges, Gemma Chan. Available on HBO Max. 113 minutes. R (language)