Before the press screening for Book Club began, a nice lady I’d guess to be a septuagenarian sat next to me, looked at this late thirtysomething man with curiosity, and blurted, “What the hell are you doing here? I think you’re the only man in this theater.” I told her that watching the movie was my job as a film critic, which prompted her to whisper me questions during the film (“Who’s that?”… “Andy Garcia”… “He’s cute!”)
After it was done, she asked what rating I would give it out of ten.“It was cute. I’d give it a seven.”
“I’d give it an eight. I guess we’re on the same page; my extra point is because I’m an old woman. There are not a lot of fun, romantic movies made for us.”
“To be honest, if this fairly typical ensemble romantic comedy was centered on a group of twenty- or thirtysomething year-olds, the way they usually are, and if it didn’t have such amazing talent in the cast, I’d have given it a five. So I guess we both made some adjustments.”
That, in a nutshell, explains why I was so charmed by Book Club, which admittedly has a fairly formulaic female ensemble romantic comedy screenplay about a group of women trying to reignite their love lives, which gets them into wacky hijinks and sit-com level forced conflict. Yet there are two elements that elevate this material. First, it must be shocking for younger people to find out that senior citizens can still fall in love, feel awkward on first dates, and gasp, like having sex. The way mainstream pop culture avoids this fact sometimes makes it feel like once someone turns sixty, their life is over and there can’t be any new and exciting experiences. It’s refreshing for a studio release to not only acknowledge that, but to frame it as a sometimes-goofy genre piece usually marketed to twenty-five-year-old women. Second, it might come as a shock, but when immensely talented stars reach a certain age, the amount of roles available for them diminishes, but not usually their talent. So it’s a warm welcome to see four of the best actresses of their generation remind us once again how good they are at their craft while obvious having fun with the project.
Book Club is about four best friends coming together every month to read and discuss a book, mainly as an excuse to chat about their personal lives over copious amounts of wine. Diane (Diane Keaton) is recently widowed and trying to figure out the seriousness of her relationship with a smooth-talking pilot (Andy Garcia). Vivian (Jane Fonda) is a successful hotel owner deathly afraid of commitment, which becomes a problem when the love of her life (Don Johnson) reenters the picture. Sharon (Candice Bergen) is a federal judge who hasn’t had sex since the release of Titanic, so she’s egged on by her friends to try internet dating. And Carol (Mary Steenburgen) is desperate to reignite her sex life with her recently retired husband (Craig T. Nelson).
The girls are inspired to pursue their sex lives further after reading Fifty Shades of Grey. (Thankfully, the bestselling novel is used as a mere plot point to motivate the characters, instead of dominating the story with cheap jokes about senior women trying BDSM.) Some of the plot threads are actually handled with a fresh perspective on love at the tail end of life. Vivian’s resistance to settling down with a man she clearly loves adds layers I didn’t see coming from this fairly standard-issue conflict. (Fonda’s acting chops are, of course, a big plus here.)
Some gimmicky sit-com adjacent jokes work mainly because the actors find fresh takes on them. A gag about Carol spiking her husband’s beer with Viagra culminates in a bittersweet sequence where they argue about their love lives. By playing the scene completely straight, Steenburgen and Nelson make the husband’s erection trying desperately to escape his pants that much funnier. The Diane Keaton and Andy Garcia romance is the most underwhelming sub-plot. The reason behind Diane’s fear of announcing her new love, climaxing with a lazily written second act break, is never really clarified. We’re meant to think that her daughters are overtly protective of her, but we never get a hint regarding whether or not they would oppose her getting into a new relationship.
The natural chemistry between the four leads is what gives this material the energy it needs. They all bring their A-game here. But if I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be Candice Bergen as the judge who opens up a Pandora’s Box of repressed sexuality once she starts her online dating adventures. Bergen’s impeccable wit, comedic timing, and indelible charm are what turned her into a star. After seeing that talent wasted in underwritten roles like in the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Home Again, it’s grand to see her finally get her due. Don’t expect more than a perfectly fine bit of mainstream fun out of Book Club, yet that’s what makes it special. It’s not a low-budget indie contemplating the “empty void of senior life,” but a film that shows senior age women can be just as silly as everyone else.
Director: Bill Holderman
Writers: Bill Holderman, Erin Simms
Starring: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Andy Garcia, Craig T. Nelson, Don Johnson, Richard Dreyfuss, Alicia Silverstone
Release Date: May 18, 2018
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.