Producers: Bill Holderman and Erin Simms   Director: Bill Holderman   Screenplay: Bill Holderman and Erin Simms   Cast: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Craig T. Nelson, Giancarlo Giannini, Hugh Quarshie, Vincent Riotta, Giampiero Judica, Giovanni Esposito, Francesco Serpico and Adriano De Pasquale   Distributor: Focus Features

Grade: C-

The locales are lovely, and the four stars aren’t bad either, but the script is decidedly undernourished in Bill Holderman’s sequel to his surprise 2018 hit.  Co-written once more with Erin Simms, “Book Club: The Next Chapter” is a soggy continuation of its predecessor that might work as a travelogue but as a comedy operates at a sub-“Golden Girls” level.

The movie takes up where the last one left off.  Diane (Diane Keaton) is living happily with ultra-considerate Mitchell (Andy Garcia), though they remain unwed, while the married life Carol (Mary Steenburgen) has with Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) is marred by his recent heart attack and her helicopter attitude about his health.  Vivian’s (Jane Fonda) relationship with her old beau Arthur (Don Johnson) has proceeded to a proposal, which she accepts though with some misgivings, while long-divorced retired judge Sharon (Candice Bergen) remains steadfastly single and sharp-tongued.

Coming out of the pandemic, when the four women had been able to meet only via unsatisfactory Zoom sessions, they now determine to learn from their latest read, “The Alchemist,” and go on a trip they’ve always dreamt of, to Italy.  There are obstacles—like Sharon’s reluctance to leave her cat behind—but all are swept aside, thanks primarily to the other women’s incredibly supportive partners.

What follows is a tour that eventually encompasses Rome, Venice and Tuscany—the final destination where the men and her three pals have prepared a wonderful surprise for Viv.  There are plenty of bad jokes along the way—leering remarks about statues, for example, or an incident in which the women naively allow their luggage to be stolen, or mistaking a handsome cop (Adriano De Pasquale) for a wedding stripper. The most extended running gag, though, has to do with a police inspector (Giancarlo Giannini), whom the women repeatedly bump into, starting with their report on the stolen luggage; Sharon, in particular, butts heads with him. But he’s also instrumental to overcoming the obstacle that, predictably, threatens to prevent the women from getting to Tuscany in time for Viv’s big surprise.       

Most of the episodes, though, are intended to extracts oohs and aahs—an extended visit to a ritzy dress shop run by a designer named Donato (Giampiero Judica), for example, or the final act of the film, filled with long, sappy monologues about love and friendship delivered by the women, and a wedding service replete with sweetness, sentiment and surprises presided over by an oh-so-hilarious fellow named Pasquale (Giovanni Esposito, a flibbertigibbet who might be a distant relative of Roberto Benigni).

Then there are quasi-romantic interludes.  Viv is already called for, of course, though even after Arthur’s proposal her attitude toward marriage remains ambivalent; luckily, he proves an incredibly understanding guy about it.  Diane has an equally considerate partner in Mitchell, who goes through hoops to woo her.  But Sharon’s story is entirely different.  She may strike a strident pose as far as most men are concerned—her sparring with Giannini’s police chief is evidence of that—but she’s ready for anything when she shares drinks with Ousmane (Hugh Quarshie), a funny, sophisticated professor, in Venice.  And even Carol is not immune.  Her commitment to Bruce is tested when, in Venice, she reconnects with Chef Gianni (Vincent Riotta), a colleague from her student days whose kitchen she’s induced to visit for a reunion. (Her own restaurant back home shut down during the pandemic.)  Will she remain faithful to Bruce, despite her longing for an intimacy she hasn’t felt recently?  And will Bruce be understanding, like all the other men in these women’s lives?  What do you think?

It’s possible that those who turned the first “Book Club” into a hit will respond to this second helping of sentiment, sassiness, limp jokes and female camaraderie, though the recipe hasn’t improved with repetition.  There is pleasure to be had, however, in the locations, rendered colorfully if overly brightly in Stefano Maria Ortolani’s production design and Andrew Dunn’s cinematography.  But though the four stars do their best, only Bergen brings real zest to the party; under Holderman’s lackadaisical direction, the others pretty much just recite the uninspired dialogue without conviction, and their performances aren’t helped by the plodding pace chosen by the director and editor Doc Crotzer.  The men fare a mite better, since smooth competence is all that’s required of them, and Giannini actually shows a spark of comic flair with his deadpan delivery—a complete contrast to Esposito’s frenzied antics.  Tom Howe’s score, as you might expect, is replete with nods to Italian favorites.      

It might be noted that once again, the lead foursome imbibe plenty of wine throughout this “Club” meeting, even more than in the previous movie.  It would probably help viewers to hoist a few glasses before—or while—watching it, too.  Certainly the picture will constitute a basis for a fine drinking game when it winds up on Blu-ray and streaming services: just follow the rule of a taking a sip whenever they do, and try to stay sober.