The appreciably bawdy new comedy Book Club—about a group of well-off, white wine–drinking, 60-something ladies—has a visual moment that’s so jarring, and yet so apt for the experience at hand, that it caused me to gasp aloud in the theater. It has to be seen to be believed, but let me try to describe it: One of our four heroines, the recently widowed Diane (Diane Keaton), is on a date with the dashing airline pilot Mitchell (Andy Garcia), who whisks her off to a restaurant with a view in sunny Santa Monica. As the two chat, the film cuts to a wide shot of them in front of a wincingly obvious CGI background, a green-screened view of a romantic sunset that looks like stock footage from a karaoke video.
That’s Book Club through and through—a team of talented pro actors playing against scenery that’s too chintzy to ignore, but too shameless to really dislike. It’s a delightfully tacky summer romp that feels destined to become a classic in basic cable reruns. The film assembles an all-star cast of award-winners (Keaton, Mary Steenburgen, Jane Fonda, and Candice Bergen) and lets them loose on an entirely rote script about the perils of love and sex in your mid-60s; the result is best enjoyed with an afternoon glass of Chardonnay.
The ladies of Book Club are all thriving successes on paper who have become unmoored, or at least a little listless, in their personal lives. Bergen plays Sharon, a federal judge who has sworn off dating after divorcing her dolt of a husband (Ed Begley Jr.), even though he’s moved on to a younger woman. Steenburgen is Carol, a famed chef and restaurateur who is in a bit of a sexual rut with her husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson). Fonda is Vivian, a wealthy hotel owner who refuses to get entangled in any serious romance for fear of getting hurt. Diane recently lost her husband, and her two grown daughters are pressuring her to move in with them in Arizona, fearing for her loneliness.
The one constant in these women’s lives is their book club together, some 40 years strong, always hosted in one of their lovely California homes. One day, Vivian picks Fifty Shades of Grey as their monthly read (to the consternation of the rest of the group), and it’s a risqué enough choice to stir up some deep questions of sex and love for each of them. Thankfully, very little of Book Club’s running time is actually devoted to discussion of Fifty Shades itself—for the most part, the ladies don’t even seem to enjoy reading it—but the movie’s entire premise is a cute send-up of that book’s reputation as a revolutionary text for stuffy old ladies.
The Book Club ensemble is anything but stuffy—they’re bracingly frank and ribald, still happy to fire off salty jokes about each other’s stalled-out love lives. Book Club doesn’t quite rise to the R-rated antics of Girls Trip, last year’s masterpiece of female friendship, but it’s not so far off; it includes an extended Viagra set piece involving Carol and Bruce, and a subplot in which Sharon joins Bumble and takes some accidental selfies. The real lure of the film (which was directed by Bill Holderman and written by Holderman and Erin Simms) is that it exists in that sun-dappled Nancy Meyers–esque world of luxurious kitchens and friendly, inoffensive men who are all happy to wait patiently for the women they love. Of course it’s a fantasy, but it’s one Hollywood only looks to indulge about once a year.
There’s Mitchell, who woos Diane with a serene sort of persistence, taking her on romantic trips in his two-seater prop plane and encouraging her to leave the grasp of her overprotective family. There’s Bruce, whose recent sense of detachment from Carol stems from general post-retirement angst. And there’s Arthur (Don Johnson), an old flame from Vivian’s past who returns to gently entice her into a meaningful relationship, happily shrugging off her tendency toward barbed insults as part of her wicked charm. They’re all handsome charisma blobs with barely any character shading—exactly as they should be, since this is a film focused squarely on these ladies.
Everyone’s in good form, but the performance that really shines here is Steenburgen. That’s partly because her character is wrestling with something a little more mundane and tangible (a longtime marriage that’s gotten frustratingly dull), and partly because she plays Carol with the kind of effervescent verve that’s defined her career since her 1981 Oscar win for Melvin and Howard. Her plotline is a nice dose of reality in a film that’s otherwise cozy and harmless. Like that first date between Diane and Mitchell, Book Club is an airy dinner conversation set before a spectacular, disposable backdrop, a sure-fire bet to be the breeziest two hours you spend in the theater this summer.
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