Film Review: Book Club

While the four leading ladies—Keaton, Fonda, Bergen and Steenbergen, all award-winning actresses of “a certain age”—can easily prove they’ve still got it, this movie does not render elder hotness into an award-worthy rom-com.
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The most realistic premise in Book Club is that a group of smart, successful women can lead totally different lives while remaining close friends over the decades—from their college years into “retirement age.” When we first meet them, Diane (Diane Keaton) is recently widowed, after being a well-off, stay-at-home wife and mother for over 40 years; Vivian (Jane Fonda), is a saucy, self-made career woman who has never married; Sharon (Candice Bergen) still works as a federal judge and is apparently happy and well-adjusted even though her husband left her for a younger woman; and, finally, Carol (Mary Steenburgen) is the only one who has remained married all these years—to a faithful but frightfully boring husband.

Okay, so these four close friends long ago decided that in order to keep their minds stimulated—get it? their minds—they would form a monthly book club. But lo, Vivian attempts to stimulate something else by introducing her book club friends, who have decades of “experience” behind them, to the wildly popular erotic trilogy of “Fifty Shades” novels by E.L. James. (Um, wasn’t that whole Christian Grey thing passé about—oh, five years ago?)

Fortunately, unlike the “Shades” novels (and subsequent films), Book Club is a romantic comedy, with the emphasis more on “com” than “rom,” so it’s a bit easier to take. Some of the best comic bits go to Bergen, whose background as TV’s Murphy Brown obviously honed her timing and the ba-da-bing delivery of some zinger lines. Although Bergen may be much less lithe than she used to be, she still looks great and is remarkably believable as the straight-arrow judge who’s inspired to try online dating. And no one’s more surprised than she is that on her first time out she ends up “necking” with her date (a nicely restrained Richard Dreyfuss) in the back seat of a dark car. (The always-hapless Wallace Shawn also turns up later, as a date-gone-wrong.)

Then there’s Vivian, a character specifically tailored for Jane Fonda, who bounces her surgery-enhanced boobs and announces that she won’t allow her friends to become “the people who stop living before they’ve stopped living.” Unlike the other three, Vivian decided early on that she didn’t need anyone, so as a solo entrepreneur she has made herself rich enough to buy the fancy Los Angeles hotel where she lives. And, by having extensive cosmetic surgery, Vivian has kept herself physically attractive enough to lure any man she wants into her bed. Her friends however, know that way back in her past Vivian was hooked on this one guy, Arthur (Don Johnson), and, purely by chance, who just happens to show up at Vivian’s hotel? Why, if it isn’t the white-haired, currently single and nicely preserved Arthur!

Carol (Mary Steenburgen) is the most docile member of the group, perhaps because she’s been the good wife all these years, trying as best she can to tend to the needs of her husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson, a proper man’s-man). However, now that Bruce has retired, Carol hopes to add a little spice to their lives by enrolling them, as a couple, in a dance contest. Secretly, however, Carol hopes to coax Bruce into spicing up their sex life, but he appears less interested in revving up his wife than revving up the old motorcycle in his garage. (Yes, the double entendres abound.)

Putting all of the above to one side, Book Club is essentially Diane Keaton’s movie. As a character also named Diane, she’s the same charmingly wacky twenty-something girl we first met nearly fifty years ago. All the little “improvised” quirks are still there, and they still work—even though Keaton herself is now 72, and looks it. (FYI: Steenburgen is the only one who’s the right age, 65, for the characters in Book Club; all the others are over 70, with Fonda, amazingly, pushing 80.) Anyway, the movie’s Diane is recently widowed and restless but not yet ready to settle into her daughter’s basement, which was recently remodeled for the mobility-impaired. However, it’s on a flight to Arizona to visit her two daughters that Diane meets Mitchell (a delicious Andy Garcia) and they have one of those instant connections. Will these two make a go of it? Well, it takes some family conferencing (after a big family shock) plus a blind leap of faith—but, yeah, the book club ladies out there won’t be disappointed.

It was a terrific idea, of course, to make a mainstream movie that attempts to combat Hollywood’s well-known ageism—which is almost exclusively directed at women. The mistake in Book Club was not in making older women the protagonists in a romantic comedy, but in promoting the idea that over-65 women have (and talk about) the same desires as women half their age. As Book Club eventually tries to make clear—especially in the relationship between Diane and Mitchell— closeness and comfort are what give those twilight years that special glow.

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