'Let Them All Talk' takes a breezy boat trip with Meryl Streep and company

“Let Them All Talk” is as breezy as an ocean cruise (pre-Covid), and mostly a welcome excuse to enjoy its three septuagenarian leads — Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest — as they banter their way across the Atlantic. Yet director Steven Soderbergh also offers some surprises, steering this polished little film in unexpected directions.

At its heart the movie — written by novelist Deborah Eisenberg — is a sort-of mystery: Streep’s Alice, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, is scheduled to receive a prestigious award in the UK. Because she can’t fly for health reasons, the publisher opts to book her on an ocean liner to get there, and grudgingly allows her to bring three companions.
She invites two old friends, Barbara and Susan (played by Bergen and Wiest), with whom she hasn’t communicated for decades, creating a puzzle about why she offered, and why they (especially Barbara) accepted.
“Here’s to picking up the conversation where we left off,” Alice says as the journey begins, which only raises more questions.
    Rounding out the group is her nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges), and surreptitiously, a representative for the publisher (“Crazy Rich Asians'” Gemma Chan), who basically uses him to try wring out a sequel to Alice’s greatest work, while the smitten kid is falling for her in the process.
    The idea of female friendships — and what can torpedo them — is hardly a new one. Indeed, Bergen starred in a 1981 movie, “Rich and Famous,” which cast her opposite Jacqueline Bisset in a somewhat similar scenario.
    Still, as “Let Them All Talk” (a bland title) chugs along, it becomes increasingly involving, and then doesn’t really deliver a particularly Hollywood-style ending. Soderbergh also elicits wonderfully natural performances from his leads — constructed with extensive improvisation — starting with Barbara’s resistance to grabbing tea or coffee with Alice, fueling speculation about the lingering grudge that drove them apart.
    In interviews, the principals have noted that the movie was shot on a relative shoestring, over a few weeks as the ship made its passage. The fact that most reasonable people would rather watch a cruise right now than actually risk booking one is either something of an added bonus or a distraction, take your pick.
    For Streep — who also teamed with Soderbergh on last year’s “The Laundromat” — the juxtaposition of this streaming movie and another a day part, Netflix’s “The Prom,” offers a reminder of both her range, and why she remains in such high demand. Here, she’s restrained to the point of clenched; there, she’s a loud, narcissistic actor in the latter, belting out show tunes.
      Aided by a jaunty Thomas Newman score, “Let Them All Talk” manages to be both fairly disposable and thoroughly entertaining. And it has likely found the right home on HBO Max, where a discerning audience can go with the flow — or stream — at their own leisurely pace.
      “Let Them All Talk” premieres Dec. 11 on HBO Max, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.

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