Take four life-long friends, one racy bestseller, some wine and food, and what do you get? An amusing and sometimes witty look at midlife love, romance and sex in “Book Club.”
The club began in 1974 when Vivian (Jane Fonda) suggested the college friends read and discuss Erica Jong’s groundbreakingly frank Fear of Flying. Fast forward forty years and it’s no shock Vivian is now proposing they read 50 Shades of Grey.
Over the decades, the friends’ lives have taken different paths but their friendship and regular book club meetings have kept them together. Sharon (Candice Bergen) became a lawyer, then a federal judge, married and had a son, then divorced. Vivian never married but has had no shortage of fun in the bedroom and owns a boutique hotel. Carol (Mary Steenburgen) married, had a family, and started her own restaurant. And Diane (Diane Keaton) married, raised two daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton), and recently was widowed.
The current theme for their book selections is stories that have been made into films. They just finished Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Vivian thinks 50 Shades would be a great read. The other three are hesitant but then agree to give the spicy bestseller a chance.
While reading 50 Shades gives the ladies some interesting scenarios to contemplate and discuss, it also has the unintended effect of motivating them to make the most of life now. All four are at crossroads in their lives. Judge Sharon had never moved on romantically since her divorce. But, her ex, Tom (Ed Begley, Jr.), is now engaged to a much younger woman. Vivian, who avoids real intimacy and commitment like the plague, is thrown off her game when Arthur (Don Johnson), her first love, re-enters her life. Although happily married, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) and Carol’s relationship has lost its passion. And, the shock of their father’s unexpected death has sent Diane’s two adult daughters into panic mode, prompting them to strong-arm their mom into moving to live with them in Arizona.
“Book Club’s” script by first-time director Bill Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms ranges from charming to hilarious to touching. The laughs are both risqué and tasteful. While double entendres and suggestive dialogue pervade, the humor never stoops to raunch. Viagra does spur a visual joke, but even that is handled with class.
The four female leads, all movie superstars in their own right, have excellent comedic timing, interacting as if they truly have been lifelong friends. Bergen, who has a re-boot of her 1990’s TV hit “Murphy Brown” in the works, keeps the laughs coming with her dry delivery of Sharon’s wit. Bergen stole the scenes she was in in 2017’s “Home Again.” It’s enjoyable to see her get more screen time here. It’s unfortunate her character’s date with George (Richard Dreyfuss) wasn’t explored more thoroughly because the two acting pros really click.
Fonda, looking stunning at age 80, brings both comedy and heart to her portrayal of a woman who has tried to avoid being hurt only to realize she’s been missing out on love. Fonda and Johnson share an easy, flirty chemistry which really translates on screen.
Steenburgen and Nelson’s interactions capture the feel of a couple who have grown too comfortable with each other. When their characters finally confront the unspoken issues keeping them apart, the interactions play authentically.
Keaton begins as the film’s narrator, introducing the friends, their club, and their life choices. Her Diane receives a majority of attention from the script as she attempts to find her own voice in her relationship with her daughters and considers the romantic overtures of Mitchell (Andy Garcia), an assertive airline pilot.
Director Holderman treats his female leads with warmth and respect. No matter how zany a scenario their characters find themselves in, they are always laughed with, not at. Shay Cunliffe’s costumes for all four flatter them. Audiences will especially get a kick when Keaton appears for a short time in her trademark “Annie Hall” menswear attire.
“Book Club” examines mature love with humor and insight. While making clear there is a difference between sex and intimacy, it celebrates both in a positive light. The film’s female leads and their male co-stars all entertain, making viewers glad these performers are still finding opportunities on the big screen.