The luxe interiors of the cruise ship where most of Let Them All Talk takes place are deliberately misleading. You’re meant to think, “This must be another movie by Nancy — It’s Complicated — Meyers.” But the camera doesn’t linger over the gleaming silver surfaces and polished wood floorboards. It doesn’t make you ache inside with envy for all the creature comforts that remain perpetually out of reach. The director Steven Soderbergh gives breathing and thinking room to every actor. The improvised dialogue (with script credit given to Deborah Eisenberg) brings the characters to life.
With her publisher’s backing, celebrated author Alice Hughes (Meryl Streep) books a cruise to England for a literary event. Hughes seems to be on a par with contemporary, award-winning writers like Ann Padgett and Louise Erdrich. Streep plays Alice as an uptight grande dame. Her pretensions fortify the walls she’s put up to hide her emotions. She doesn’t let anyone in. But for some reason, she’s invited two of her best friends from college, and her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges), along for the voyage.
Alice is ambivalent about reconnecting with people she hasn’t seen in over 30 years — and often visibly uncomfortable. Roberta (Candice Bergen) holds a grudge against Alice for using her troubled marriage as material for her most successful novel. Divorced, broke and selling lingerie in a Texas department store, Roberta’s on board for the free vacation and the chance to meet a man. You can see the combination of desperation and greediness in Bergen’s eyes. Roberta doesn’t want revenge; she wants compensation.
Alice and Roberta play a cat-and-mouse game that keeps ending with avoidance. Susan (Dianne Wiest), on the other hand, has a settled life in Seattle and is doing just fine. She’s joined the crew out of curiosity not because she’s feeling particularly nostalgic. But Alice doesn’t connect with Susan either. Streep and Wiest don’t have a single scene alone together, which is a damn shame. I wanted to see them reunite on screen to squabble or kvetch after they played best friends in the 1984 romantic drama Falling in Love.
Alice meets with Tyler, who assists with her daily schedule, then she swims and returns to her two-story cabin to write. Streep keeps Alice’s secrets to herself. We never learn exactly why she invited her college pals on the trip. When we see her hugging Tyler late in the film, it’s the most surprising part of a short montage. It’s the first time we see Alice demonstrating an emotion. Her way of being in the world is to exercise a series of cautious withdrawals.
As the days roll by, Roberta, in between some god-awful dates with dull but eligible bachelors, plays Monopoly and Scrabble with Susan. They talk about past affairs and make each other laugh. But Let Them All Talk isn’t a rigorous or sentimental take on long-term friendships. It’s a welcome, soothing bromide that bubbles up with understated wit and charm. That’s especially true of Wiest. When she tells Roberta about a past sexual escapade, Susan lands the anecdote proudly, punctuated by a dirty smirk.
Let Them All Talk feels looser and less formulaic than other movies that scrutinise the interpersonal dynamics of the upper middle class. Soderbergh wasn’t intent on making a romcom, with multiple pairings of happy couples. It’s an observational comedy of manners that, to its credit, omits easy epiphanies and sappy resolutions. Alice does have one weighty monologue that makes more sense at the end of the film. Streep’s magic act here — without shedding a tear — is to draw out our sympathy for a character who, by all outward appearances, doesn’t deserve any.
Let Them All Talk is now streaming on HBO Max.