BOOK CLUB— 3 STARS
The combined skill of comic timing possessed by Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen could power the emergency backup of the master atomic clock found at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. with impeccable precision should the real thing every fail. That’s how good those actresses are in their element, playing off each other, and with the right material that lets them operate freely. To some Book Club will be inane and superfluous. To those with appreciative tastes for the talent involved, they will find satisfying enjoyment in watching these women shine as they do best.
The four senior ladies are college friends who have supported each other through marriages, children, and all sorts of personal ups-and-downs. Voiceover montages set to Peter Nashel’s (I, Tonya) cheeky and perky underscore offer quick introductions. Diane (Keaton) is a recent widow with two worried middle-aged daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) that want her to move closer to them in Arizona. Sharon (Bergen) is a long-divorced federal judge who has avoided starting other romantic relationships for the better part of two decades. Carol (Steenburgen) is still married to her stud Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), but the two have been on a cold streak in the intimacy department. Last but not least, Vivian (Fonda) is the rich and untamed vamp of the bunch who has never settled down and partakes in a cycle of casual flings to sustain her vitality.
Ever since Erica Jong’s 1973 novel Fear of Flying, these staunch feminists have uncorked the wine, fluffed the coach pillows, shared stories, poured out hearts, and peeled back the pages of a new read each month. When Vivian drops the literary gauntlet of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey down as the next book to shake things up, little earthquakes of sexual curiosities and torrid tremors hit each woman.
LESSON #1: THE INSPIRATION CREATED BY BEST-SELLING BOOKS— The right book can inspire any single person all on its own at any given time. Something greater happens when a smash hit book inspires millions all at the same time. That is impact and influence on another level because of the volume of shared experiences across audiences and demographics. In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, its phenomenal and far-reaching success was a hot-blooded spark and a wake-up call.
The tizzied push of excitement from the book nudges each into action. Carol tries to create more eye-catching attention and frankness with Bruce. Sharon enters the tumultuous realm of online dating and finds an intriguing catch (the long-lost Richard Dreyfus). Diane becomes smitten with a dashing pilot (the dark and handsome Andy Garcia), while Vivian flirts with a returning woulda-coulda-shoulda old flame (the engaging smolder of Don Johnson) she denied a marriage proposal from forty years ago. In typical romantic comedy fashion, hiccups of hilarity bubble every which way. All of them miss a few obvious simplicities and easier answers en route to figuring out better decisions.
LESSON #2: ROMANCE STIMULATES THE MIND MORE THAN SEX— There are both taboos and excuses to break within the ladies of Book Club. Though suggested otherwise, the point of companionship is not to get laid, even if the “older man” is a different animal that his younger vigorous self. Likewise, embarrassment is a deterrent and not a motivator for sex. The real lesson is don’t stop trying to find the romance while entertaining the carnal fixations. Romance doesn’t have to have an age limit or stopping point.
Hatched from the director’s experience sharing the James book with his own mother, the ensemble narrative written by the creative team of co-writer/director Bill Holderman (A Walk in the Woods) and his co-writer/producer Erin Simms (Our Souls at Night) deftly manages multiple story threads with smarts for equal spotlight and pacing. Book Club probably checks more formulaic boxes than not. However, a formula becomes a formula because it works, and this flick entertains just fine. Shot by veteran cinematographer Andrew Dunn (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) in 33 days on a indie-level low budget (with the gals even bringing their own wardrobe), the easily approachable film has a clean look and stands as an impressive debut feature from Holderman and company.
Gosh, how good does everyone look? Sure, a SWAT team of personal hair stylists and makeup artists brought out every possible vivacity, yet that can only be done if vivacity is present. Each of the four female co-leads and their connected male targets are marvelous in their own way. Bergen’s jokes land their jabs on chuckling chins every stinking time. Keaton is always a version of manic herself, but her scenes with Garcia really slow her signature dithering into something smoother. The 80-year-old Fonda (oldest of the quartet) is an ageless treasure when showing off her commanding confidence and Johnson can match her tit for tat. No one given anything super meaty to do compared to the peaks of their storied resumes, but the comedy levels employed are all right up their alley without miscasting or overacting.
As aforementioned, viewers of Book Club are coming for the assembled legendary talent and the chance to watch them prance with punchlines. All that banter! All the innuendos! All the metaphors! All the “lethargic pussy” zingers! All of it is an easy treat of summer counter-programming and a little more.
LESSON #3: COMBATING AGEISM— The notion of time limits, stopping points, and general declines extends beyond Lesson #2 for the internal characters to the outside industry making this very movie. Women stop getting lead roles and specialized projects after age 40 and even less after age 50. Holderman and Simms intentionally wrote this film for this later age range and underserved female demographic. When the box office receipts come in (call me confident), you will all see the thankful female half of this market that has sat through the boys having more fun than them (Last Vegas, Going in Style, The Bucket List, and dozens more) for too long. Let’s celebrate that for a second and urge for more.
LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#692)