It’s undoubtedly a great thing that pop culture is slowly but surely getting better at acknowledging the sexual lives of women well over 40. And the idea of bringing together comedy legends Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen for a romantic comedy celebrating both female friendship and female sexual desire seems like a surefire hit. It’s shame, then, that Book Club is such a dud. On the other hand, maybe there’s power in that too — that Hollywood has produced a boring sex comedy starring four women whose average age is 72 is perhaps a win in and of itself. That doesn’t, however, make Book Club worth seeking out.
The big hook of Book Club is that it centers on four older women rediscovering their sexual passions while reading Fifty Shades Of Grey for their long-running book club. But that conceit winds up feeling like little more than a marketing tactic. There’s very little in the way of specific tie-ins to E.L. James’ series or to the BDSM concept at its center (probably for the better), and Book Club could’ve had the women read just about any romance novel, were it not for the fact that Fifty Shades is an easier punchline to cut into a trailer.
Instead, Book Club borrows heavily from The First Wives Club‘s format by juxtaposing the very different personalities of its central group of lifelong female friends. Vivian (Fonda) is a sexually vociferous, fiercely independent hotel owner who breezes through men like Kleenex. Carol (Steenburgen) is an earnest romantic who worries that she and her husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) have lost the sexual spark in their relationship. Sharon (Bergen) is a powerful federal judge by day but a lonely “cat lady” by night — a fact made more difficult to bear when she learns that her ex-husband (Ed Begley Jr.) is currently dating a 25-year-old. And Diane (Keaton) is a recent widow who spent most of her life in a stable but passionless marriage and is now being too quickly ushered into her dotage by her two adult daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton).
It’s a lot of plot for one film to handle, and that’s not even getting into Diane’s sexy pilot paramour Mitchell (Andy García), the return of Vivian’s college sweetheart Arthur (Don Johnson), or Sharon’s parade of online dates (Richard Dreyfuss, Wallace Shawn). The best parts of Book Club puts its four leads in an artfully decorated living room, sticks giant wine glasses in front of them, and lets them bounce off one another. Unfortunately, the film’s many unnecessary subplots leave far too little room for that sort of thing. A smarter film would’ve more deeply explored the interpersonal dynamics between these four very different lifelong friends, but Book Club presents its central quartet as a blandly supportive girl group and mines drama from their far less interesting individual romantic storylines instead.
The film’s humor ranges from unfunny to painfully unfunny — although the painfully unfunny stuff does at least make the unfunny jokes look better by comparison. Every hacky rom-com gag is inelegantly trotted out here: Pratfalls improbably lead to inappropriate body parts being grabbed, the women snicker as Bruce makes unintentional sexual innuendos while talking about his motorcycle, someone accidentally takes a selfie while wearing a face mask, and one particularly excruciating visual joke involves a soil moisture device zooming to “wet” as Carol pages through Fifty Shades. The only surprising thing about Book Club is that it actually finds a tiny bit of emotional realism in its inevitable subplot about a book club attendee secretly giving her romantic partner Viagra.
The film doesn’t deliver on the “romantic” half of its rom-com formula either. Like the Fifty Shades film series, Book Club struggles to create anything resembling chemistry between its romantic leads. None of the film’s male stars can equal the charisma of their respective leading ladies (although Nelson and especially Garcia come closest). That’s especially unfortunate for Fonda, who puts a lot of verve into her performance, but is stuck playing against a charisma void in Johnson, who frequently feels like he’s reading his lines off a cue card after just seeing them for the first time.
Aesthetically, Book Club doesn’t look like a Nancy Meyers knockoff so much as a knockoff of a Nancy Meyers knockoff. Co-writer and first-time director Bill Holderman brings very little resembling life, reality, or charm to his filmmaking, relying on his leading ladies to pick up the slack. (Holderman worked as a long-time producer for Robert Redford’s production company, which perhaps helps explain the caliber of talent he’s able to assemble here.) And to their credit Keaton, Fonda, Bergen, and Steenburgen fight tooth and nail to elevate the subpar material, and every so often they almost succeed. In the few moments the film does work (particularly during a climatic dance routine), it’s thanks almost exclusively to its four stars.
Book Club has its heart in the right place, but good intentions alone aren’t enough, particularly when there’s already better material tackling these same topics — most notably Fonda’s far superior Netflix series Grace And Frankie. To those still drawn to Book Club because of its cast or premise, I’d recommend first watching Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated, the full run of Grace and Frankie, The First Wives Club, all 247 episodes of Murphy Brown, and, hell, probably Back To The Future III too. If your desire for more Keaton, Fonda, Bergen, and Steenburgen content still isn’t satiated, then and only then should you check out Book Club. Otherwise, it’s a chapter not worth reading.