Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen share a combined 13 Oscar nominations – along with countless other accolades – and star together in Book Club, which doesn’t exactly make the best use of their talents. To put it mildly.
No, the height of literary discussion in Book Club amounts to unironic study of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, the book of the month that finally inspires these septuagenarians to get back into the hanky-panky.
There are also two Moby Dick references, which don’t involve white whale or Captain Ahab double entendres; no, they’re there because name of the book has the word “Dick” in it. Funny!
But the screenplay, by director Bill Holderman and Erin Simms, isn’t entirely idiotic, and even includes a Werner Herzog reference that I presume few of this film’s watchers will get. And even though Cave of Forgotten Dreams is invoked in reference to Bergen’s character’s vagina, well, I’ll take what I can get.
To say that this material is beneath its actresses is an understatement; it would be beneath the leads of Sex and the City. But if you can get past the broad, lowest-common-denominator filmmaking, there’s still some joy contained in their performances.
In terms of story, the Fifty Shades springboard is all there is; after reluctantly including it in their monthly book club, the ladies’ untamed desires come to a head. This is depicted, in one scene, by Steenburgen’s character watering some flowers while reading the bestseller. There’s a moisture meter in the soil, and it goes from ‘dry’, right past ‘moist’, and all the way to ‘wet’ as she turns the page. Oh, Book Club, you devil.
Each woman gets a sitcom-level storyline to fumble through, while the film can barely muster enough energy to cut between them.
Forever-single hotelier Vivian (Fonda) rekindles a romance with a long-ago flame, played by Don Johnson; widow Diane (Keaton) is pulled from California to Arizona by her adult daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) while a cute pilot (Andy Garcia) pulls her back; long-divorced judge Sharon (Bergen) tries out online dating, where she meets characters played by Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn; and Carol (Steenburgen) tries to get her husband (Craig T. Nelson) back in bed.
The stories with Fonda and Keaton are cute, and greatly aided by some sympathetic male counterparts; both Johnson and Garcia are fun to watch here. But the material involving the Bergen and Steenburgen characters is entirely one-note, and feel like filler.
It’s nice to see this cast play off each other, but the existence of Book Club and movies like it – broad Hollywood comedies starring an older generation of actors, made by young filmmakers and pandering to an elderly audience – baffles me. See also: Just Getting Started, Going in Style, Last Vegas, etc. Oldsploitation cinema.
Wouldn’t fans of these actors want to see something a little more… mature? Book Club doesn’t even aim for the sophistication of a Nancy Meyers or Nora Ephron production, and it’s more juvenile than the last Adam Sandler movie I saw (The Week Of). But it’s far from the worst of these things, and it is nice to see these actresses together on the big screen in 2018. For some, that might be enough.