“Slow boat” isn’t a bad metaphor for Steven Soderbergh’s latest, but take that as the greatest compliment: Let Them All Talk (on HBO Max Dec. 10) is part absurdist character study, part shaggy-dog caper on the high seas, and thoroughly delightful — not least because it stars Meryl Streep as a self-regarding novelist named Alice and Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest as her two oldest (if not precisely dearest) friends.
Alice doesn’t fly, so she’s taking a luxury liner from New York to England to receive a literary prize. The trip, as she sees it, is the perfect chance — if you don’t count nearly half a century of past hurts and passive animosities — to reconnect. For her lovely but anxious new agent (Crazy Rich Asians’ Gemma Chan) it’s also an opportunity to find out whether her client’s long-gestating manuscript is a sequel to her singular triumph, a Pulitzer prize-winner called You Always You Never. (Though Karen hasn’t exactly been invited; in fact, she’s essentially a stowaway.)
Also on board are Alice’s earnest young nephew (Lucas Hedges), brought along as a sort of companion-slash-Boy Friday to his high-maintenance aunt, and a mystery writer (played with great non-actory charm by the filmmaker Dan Algrant) whose outrageous popularity represents everything she so strenuously rejects. Alice, you see, is a true artiste, not some craven content monkey churning out literary pablum for the masses; that must be why her sales have dropped so precipitously since You Always.
On the ship, ancient rivalries are relit and new alliances are forged. Wiest’s Susan, a serene Seattle social worker in floaty Eileen Fisher linens, stealthily delivers some of the movie’s best lines, a whole quiver of arrows encased in her girlish, guileless inflections. (Wait till you hear what she has to say about threesomes.) And as Roberta, an aspiring Texas trophy wife desperately in search of a solvent man to put a ring on it, Bergen is a brittle wonder, quietly furious at the indignities dealt to a single lady of a certain age.
Streep, cocooned like a pasha in her neuroses and cashmere wraps, imbues her fussy, querulous Alice with a queenly hauteur; witnessing her with Chan’s Karen is like watching a bored lioness toy with a baby springbok. And there’s a loose, jazzy verve to the production, a sort of sonic and visual razzmatazz that gives the film a fanciful Oceans 11-style gloss. Mostly, though, Talk is just a chance to spend two hours watching Streep & Co. make the most of Deborah Eisenberg’s deliciously salty script, while Soderbergh — who also serves as cinematographer — shoots it all in ruthless, radiant light. Grade: A–