British filmmakers have prospered for years making pictures—and television shows—about members of the older generation engaging in life-affirming actions that often take a slightly naughty turn. Now there’s an American version of the premise that one’s twilight years can be golden ones in “Book Club,” about four ladies of a certain age, friends who have long discussed books every week. Together they read “Fifty Shades of Grey” and decide that its steamy message doesn’t apply only to the young. The movie proves that while the Brits have a knack for pulling off this sort of elder fantasy, we colonials lack the touch. It’s so bad that you might think that Garry Marshall had come back to life to direct it.
But no: the culprit is Bill Holderman, who not only helmed this misfire but co-wrote it with Erin Simms. For some reason a good cast signed up for their sitcom fluff. Diane Keaton plays Diane, a recently widowed woman whose helicopter daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) are pressuring her to move out to Los Angeles to be close to them. Then there’s Vivian (Jane Fonda), a haughty, well-to-do hotelier who rejoices in her freedom to enjoy a stream of one-night stands without commitment. Carol (Mary Steenburgen) is happily married to just-retired Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), but is worried about their lack of intimacy. The last of the foursome is Sharon (Candice Bergen), a long-divorced federal judge who claims to be uninterested in any relationship but gets annoyed when her ex, Tom (Ed Begley, Jr.), takes up with a much younger woman (Mircea Monroe), and her son gets engaged.
So what’s the plot? Each of the four, inspired by “Shades” to do anything but the right choice—which would be to throw the book into a fire—finds romance. Even at seventy, it appears, every woman needs a man to make her life complete. For Diane, he’s Mitchell (Andy Garcia), whom she meets on a flight to L.A.; he immediately becomes an insistent suitor, and she ditches her daughters to spend time with him. Vivian finds her Romeo in Arthur (Don Johnson), an old flame from back in the day who shows up at her hotel; soon their passion is rekindled. Carol works on renewing her marriage, and ultimately succeeds. And Sharon goes on a dating site to check out candidates, eventually linking up with two (Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn). Eventually she chooses one.
As the screenplay jumps from one of these romantic threads to another, it shamelessly resorts to sitcom cliché after sitcom cliché, willing even to descend to a sequence based on the unanticipated effects of Viagra. There are, of course, obstacles to happiness to be overcome by each of the women, and they all do so in ways more likely to evoke grimaces than smiles. One has to feel sorry for the actresses as they go through the paces demanded of them; they’re all talented pros, after all, and you feel a degree of embarrassment for what they endure here. The slapstick is bad enough—Keaton and Fonda suffer most in that regard—but even worse are the serious speeches they must eventually give about the life lessons their experience has taught them. Bergen, and poor Keaton again, are the primary victims in that respect. As for Steenburgen, she’s lucky enough to get by with just a goofy dance routine at a local charity fundraiser.
There is some consolation, however, in the fact that the movie isn’t misogynist: it treats most of the male stars as badly it does the female leads. Dreyfuss gets the worst of it, especially in a scene where he appears in a state of undress, but Nelson is stuck with the Viagra sequence—and you can predict what that involves. By contrast Garcia and Johnson are allowed to slide by on their dubious charms.
“Book Club” is no visual treat, either. As shot by Andrew Dunn, the settings are attractive enough (though some of the outdoor shots have a doctored feel), and Shay Cunliffe’s costumes are designed to flatter the leading ladies; but overall the film has a flat, stagey look. Peter Nashel’s bubbly score doesn’t help matters, either.
One final point about “Book Club”: it’s hard to recall another recent film in which alcohol plays so major a role. These women constantly have a glass of wine in their hands, and they guzzle it with relish. Apparently a man isn’t all they need. But this quirk may be a useful hint to potential viewers: if you want to get through this movie, it would help to down a few stiff drinks beforehand.