'Let Them All Talk' review: Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen are pure gold

The three actresses star in a film shot aboard the Queen Mary 2.

December 11, 2020, 4:01 AM

Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh had a daring idea: Convince three indisputable acting greats -- Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen -- to make a movie aboard the Queen Mary 2 on a transatlantic crossing. Done. Give them character backstories from award-winning short story writer Deborah Eisenberg. Also done. And then -- gulp! -- ask them to improvise the dialogue as real passengers move about the ship. Done and dusted. The whole thing would take two weeks. And the result, now on HBO Max, is called "Let Them All Talk."

Diane Wiest, Candace Bergen and Meryl Streep in a scene from "Let Them Talk."

It shouldn't work. And yet it does, gloriously. Soderbergh hits rough seas from time to time, but this ship is never in danger of going under. Streep, Wiest and Bergen pull off the feat with irresistible style and wit -- tugging at the heartstrings, yes, but without getting mushy about it. Watching three legends fly by the seat of their pants becomes a first-class ticket to fun and at far more affordable prices than you'd pay to set sail on the Cunard Line's luxury flagship.

Streep plays Alice Hughes, a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist en route to the U.K. to receive yet another award (Streep with a record 21 Oscar nominations and three wins surely knows the feeling). Since Alice will have time to kill on board when she's not finishing her new novel, she decides to invite her old pals, Susan (Wiest) and Barbara (Bergen), to join her. "Here's to reconnecting the gang of three we used to be," says Alice, blithely ignoring the three decades they've been apart.

Lucas Hedges and Meryl Streep in a scene from "Let Them Talk."

Everyone gets more than they bargained for. That includes Alice's nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges), who functions as her assistant. Among the uninvited is Karen (Gemma Chan), Alice's agent, who hopes to discover inside info by flirting with Tyler. Chan and Hedges are fine young actors, but they don't stand a chance against the old guard.

Bergen steals every scene she's in as a hell-raising Texas divorcée forced to work in a department store, and hating it. She is still livid at Alice for using her bitter breakup as fodder for one of her novels. It sabotaged Barbara's marriage and her financial stability. Susan tries to mediate between the two -- no one is better at wised-up warmth than Wiest -- but Barbara is still seething at her former friend, while also seeking a new rich husband on the voyage.

Is Barbara also the subject of Helen's new novel? Maybe. Helen is clearly keeping secrets and Streep is incomparable at revealing hidden depths behind the famous author's cool wit and surface snobbery. The surprise ending is a letdown given the caliber of the talent on board. But hold the lifeboats. Soderberg can tool around every nook and cranny of the great ship, but he knows he can't go wrong just by keeping his camera focused on Streep, Wiest and Bergen as they ignite sparks on a classy trip between humor and heartbreak. They're pure gold.

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