A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, her two college buddies and her nephew walk into a cruise ship’s bar …
The director Steven Soderbergh fills in the rest in the HBO Max movie “Let Them All Talk,” starring a trinity of great Hollywood dames: Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest, though the colorless comedy-drama snoozes through the punchline.
Filmed aboard the Queen Mary 2, the movie stars Streep as Alice, an author who, while traveling to accept a prestigious award, aims to reconnect with her friends and work on her new manuscript — but finds her relationships with both more complicated than anticipated. Roberta (Bergen) resents Alice for writing her most famous book based on Roberta’s life, which she says was ruined as a result. Susan (Wiest, mostly wasted here) tries to keep the peace.
Alice’s nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges), assists his aunt, while Alice’s nervous new agent (Gemma Chan), who’s secretly onboard, gets close to Tyler to keep an eye on her client.
Talk, talk, talk — “Let Them All Talk” is aptly named, because it’s full of stilted conversations, though they fail to captivate. (The script was written by the short story writer Deborah Eisenberg but much of it was improvised.) And despite the talented actors onscreen, Soderbergh’s mannered direction lacks charisma and the characters lack chemistry.
It’s not like Soderbergh is going for the warm, fuzzy reunion movie. He wants uncomfortable static in these scenes, a movie full of social disconnects — something offhand and offbeat but with underlying depth. But even on their own the characters lack verve, and Soderbergh seems ambivalent to them. There are hints of a more interesting film: with nimbler dialogue and more prominent character design, we’d near the field of “Annie Hall”-era Woody Allen; some more notches of tenderness and we’d be on “Before Sunset”-era Richard Linklater’s doorstep.
By the end the issue isn’t the sluggishness and unseasoned execution, but its moral ambiguity regarding Alice’s use of the unofficial Karl Ove Knausgaard writing method — plucking from loved ones’ lives for inspiration. The question of what stories Alice can own, what’s off-limits and how she herself lives in the writing is more interesting than the film gives it credit for. But I’m done now; can we change the conversation?
Let Them All Talk
Rated R. They all talked. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. Watch on HBO Max.