Money talks — loudly enough that it could just as well be the fourth wheel to the troubled trio at the center of Let Them Talk, the new Steven Soderbergh movie, which is currently streaming on HBO Max. The movie’s got a solid premise. Three former college friends — Alice (Meryl Streep), Roberta (Candice Bergen), and Susan (Dianne Wiest) — reunite on an ocean liner after decades apart, and hilarity ensues, then fizzles, then picks back up again. The occasion: Alice, a Pulitzer-winning author whose previous work has been adapted into a film and a television series, is due to collect a major literary prize in England. Only — to the chagrin of her agent, Karen (Gemma Chan) — she refuses to fly. So she goes by sea. And, somewhere along the way, she decides the trip would be a fun excuse to reunite with her friends, though to what end, it isn’t totally clear. Reconciliation? Nostalgia? “I’m just not going to be available,” Alice says almost as soon as the trip begins — there’s your reconciliation. She brings her scraggly, wandering nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) along too; Karen is also on board, but Alice doesn’t know that. Yet.
There’s a lot these women don’t yet know — namely, about each other, and the rifts that have grown between them. Roberta is the least successful of the bunch, an effect with a clear cause, as we later learn. A ship full of wealthier men her age has its advantages. Susan, meanwhile, feels she’s the least sophisticated of the crew, where in fact, with her dreamy eye for curious details that can spark delight in fellow-dreamers, she’s the most. Tyler’s just just happy to be here — until a schoolboy crush gives him something to do. Karen, the stowaway, just wants to know when the hell she’s going to get her hands on Alice’s latest book. Well, no: She also has hopes that it will be a book that actually makes money.
Let Them All Talk dives into all of this with a firm grip on the steering wheel. There are minor mysteries at play; big ideas that get discussed; a pace, from scene to scene, that’s as efficient as it is tangled and conflict-ridden. All of this despite a tone that feels loose, hands off. If anyone knows how to sit back and let actors this good do their thing, it’s Soderbergh. The movie was made, per the director’s nimbly stripped down style of late, in very little time (two weeks), on the actual RMS Queen Mary 2, with barely a script (the great Deborah Eisenberg wrote one, but Soderbergh and Co. mostly relied on her broad outline). It is playfully unorthodox in its production: The director apparently “held the camera in a wheelchair and just rolled along,” Wiest recently told Entertainment Weekly.
It’s a freestyler’s ethic, which only makes it stranger that the movie doesn’t quite feel as light on its feet or as improvisatory and free as, in this director’s hands, it might have. But of course there are pleasures, among them — surprise, surprise, given the title — some moments of sharp, clamoring chatter. Soderbergh (who also, as is by now well known, edits his own films) has a knack for taking basic film grammar — for schooling us in where and how to look — and using those tools to shake scenes free of what in other hands might be laden with casual dullness. I almost found myself wishing the screenplay, such as it is, had done less, in order for the camera, the actors, and the invisible intellectual threads Soderbergh so often knows how to build, to do more. Soderbergh at his best gets the mind going, even in movies that fully wear the guise of being “just entertainment.”
Let Them All Talk is a little saggier than that, spins its wheels unexpectedly often. But it’s enjoyable for all the pasta it insistently throws against the wall — and all the chewy dialogue and worthy ideas it glints upon in the meantime, about writing, about friendship, about experience. Bergen, in particular, is a delight. She can look at someone like she wants to kill them and make you crave, actually envision, her hands around their necks.
She gets ample opportunity to flex that mug here, and in a way, the character of Roberta, whose rift from Alice is pointed and damning, is the thread that holds this movie together. What’s at stake in a writer like Alice, a defensive defender of highbrow fiction, borrowing from the lives of others, anyway? And what’s her responsibility to the effect this has on the real lives of her friends? Don’t ask Alice. The movie’s way into the problem is ultimately more spurious than invigorating. But Roberta — less successful than her friends, destroyed by a divorce, bitter over a life borrowed, without recompense, for another woman’s art — could just as well be the star player in a version of this movie titled Friends With Money. Money, more than anything, more than even talk, is what gives Let Them Talk its rare glimpses of fire. For real blood-and-guts brimstone with better comic flair, better to look elsewhere in Soderbergh’s canon. Thankfully, we’ve already been given so many other places to look.