Having sold a gazillion copies and been made into three movies, the Fifty Shades trilogy now receives a product-placement tribute in Book Club. For the quartet of accomplished sexagenarian characters in this glossy rom-com, the S&M erotica is not just reading material but a catalyst for seismic change. In other words, abandon your disbelief at the multiplex door.
Instead, sit back and watch four dazzling pros inhabit a sitcommy world like nobody’s business, providing whatever dimension it has and selling lines that have no business being sold. The movie is a testament to the star power of Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen, who, as the longtime friends at the center of a run-of-the-mill comedy, are the only reasons to see it.
A lightweight showcase for heavyweight talent.
Under the flat, utilitarian direction of Bill Holderman, who wrote the alternately sharp and mushy screenplay with Erin Simms, the film interweaves its gags (Viagra warning!) with lessons in self-worth, often pushing too insistently. As far as it goes, Book Club is a mostly painless ride, with a few laugh-out-loud moments, but as Peggy Lee memorably sang, Is that all there is?
An early nod to Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying is a nice touch, and also, in its fleetingness, an indication that the movie isn’t about to delve into the generational experiences of its characters. Even their professions are more window dressing than grounds for exploration, although the go-getter business acumen of Fonda’s aptly flame-haired hotelier, Vivian, fits her particular romantic challenges. She’s the one who brings Fifty Shades of Grey to the monthly reading club of Sharon (Bergen), a divorced federal judge; Diane (Keaton), the recently widowed mother of two bossy adult daughters; and long-married Carol (Steenburgen).
Vivian is also the group’s only sexually active member, but she’s averse to emotional connection and treats sex as a contact sport, not an act of intimacy. That’s a problem when Arthur, a boyfriend she hasn’t seen in 40 years, shows up in the lobby of her luxury resort. In a bit of six-degrees trivia, he’s played by Don Johnson, whose daughter Dakota played Fifty Shades‘ Anastasia Steele. Though the movie drums up not the slightest will-they-or-won’t-they suspense, Fonda injects toughness and humor into a thinly conceived part. Just as she and Lily Tomlin elevate their Netflix series, Grace and Frankie, with their killer comic timing, the fun she’s clearly having as Vivian is infectious.
Reading E.L. James’ best-seller puts Carol, whose sex life with husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) has gone cold, “in a tizzy,” and the initially horrified Sharon ventures into the dating pool for the first time in almost 20 years. While Sharon makes online and IRL connections with single men (Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn, the latter unfortunately used as some sort of weak punchline), Diane stumbles into romance with dreamy airline pilot Mitchell (Andy Garcia). Keaton puts her signature stamp on the awkwardness of a first-date good-night and the openheartedness of a shared memory. More formulaically — in a movie that’s built on formula — Steenburgen’s aching, horny Carol does everything she can to get her hubby in the sack, until, finally and affectingly, she can only dance her heart out.
With her nonpareil acerbity, Bergen (who delivered a superb cameo in last year’s underappreciated The Meyerowitz Stories and here whets the appetite for her return to the small screen as Murphy Brown) puts the zing in half-baked zingers. (To be fair, a few of the jokes, as written, would be stingingly good even on paper.) But Bergen, whose character is the most nuanced and memorable of the bunch, also communicates Sharon’s vulnerability in taking the leap, and in her confrontations with her ex (Ed Begley, wordlessly conveying male midlife crisis) and his much younger fiancée (Mircea Monroe).
Keaton, too, taps into what’s poignant as well as comic in her role, not just in terms of romance, but also in Diane’s struggle to withstand the intrusions of her ridiculously overprotective daughters (Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton). Convinced, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that their healthy, active mother is incapable of an independent life, they’re determined to fast-track her to a basement apartment in one of their homes in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Like Fifty Shades, the movie is in thrall to aspirational romance-novel trappings. With its constant flow of wine and array of Nancy Meyers-style luxe comfort, it casts suburban Los Angeles in a bland travelogue sheen. Other than a quick glimpse of Beverly Hills’ shopping district, there’s no there there.
That goes too for the movie’s two chief love interests. Johnson and Garcia provide the requisite silver-fox twinkle, but their characters are paper-thin dreamboats with no true sense of personal history. A two-sentence explanation of Garcia’s character’s wealth stands out as a rare acknowledgment of financial reality.
Holderman and Simms wrap each of the central characters’ stories in ways that are satisfying and feel thoughtful rather than perfunctory. But while the film unsubtly pleads its case for the viability of older women, it’s the four leads, and the long bodies of work they bring to their performances, that speak volumes without trying. The actresses, whose ages range from 65 to 80, are as creatively vital as ever, and, to quote not Peggy Lee but Joni Mitchell, amid all the predictable rom-com business, they effortlessly give us women of heart and mind.
Production companies: June Pictures, Endeavor Content, Apartment Story
Cast: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Richard Dreyfuss, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton, Ed Begley Jr., Wallace Shawn, Tommy Dewey, Mircea Monroe
Director: Bill Holderman
Screenwriters: Bill Holderman, Erin Simms
Producers: Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Bill Holderman, Erin Simms
Executive producers: Ted Deiker, Alan Blomquist
Director of photography: Andrew Dunn
Production designer: Rachel O’Toole
Costume designer: Shay Cunliffe
Editor: Priscilla Nedd-Friendly
Composer: Peter Nashel
Casting directors: Kerry Barden, Avy Kaufman