Possibly the best thing about the harmless comedy, Book Club, is that the four lifelong female friends reading E.L. James don’t get into S&M shenanigans. When Vivian (Jane Fonda), the sexpot of the quartet, selects 50 Shades of Grey as the titular club’s monthly read, Sharon (Candice Bergen), Carol (Mary Steenburgen) and Diane (Diane Keaton) are all scandalized. Nevermind the fact that these ladies bonded 40+ years ago when they read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. Now these women of a certain age are at a point in their lives—save perhaps Vivian—where for some of them a good book is arguably more desirable than sex.
As indicated, Book Club wisely doesn’t play up the 50 Shades shtick, save a cute sight gag involving a riding crop and some passing remarks about duct tape and ties, handcuffs, and a safe word. Instead, the film uses the naughty novel to get these women to open themselves up to romance.If only what resulted wasn’t as superficial as an episode of The Love Boat.
Vivian is a successful hotelier who reconnects with Arthur (Don Johnson) a former flame. But watching them flirt by splashing each other in a fountain is pretty lame. In contrast, Diane, who worries about dying in a plane crash, gets handsy with Mitchell (Andy Garcia) a passenger on a flight. It turns out Mitchell is a pilot and he plans to conquer her fear of flying. Meanwhile, Carol tries to reignite her marriage to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), with dance lessons, but he is too busy rebuilding his motorcycle and dropping unfunny double entendres. Rounding out the bunch, Sharon, is the cynic with an ex-husband who tries her hand at internet dating with the expected mixed results.
While the women are all slightly empowered having read 50 Shades of Grey,they are also too simplistic for the silliness the predictable Book Club puts them through. An extended sequence where Carol secretly doses Bruce with Viagra generates one amusing exchange, but the episode goes on far too long. Better is a bit where Sharon tries on a garment to help her figure, and gets so tangled up in it, it might as well have been a sex harness.
The biggest problem with Book Club is that it does not give its talented cast much to do except drink glasses and glasses of wine. Fonda is largely wasted as the sex-positive Vivian because her character just is not compelling. Even when Johnson makes an impassioned attempt to woo her, there is no chemistry between them. At least Andy Garcia’s relaxed pilot is well suited to the ditzy Diane, but a storyline involving her overprotective adult daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) drag the film down. When Diane describes her first kiss, Book Clubshows heart and promise, but it is short lived. As Carol, Mary Steenburgen has the weakest role, but the actress gives a committed performance and is quite likable. The film’s best character is Bergen’s Sharon. She gets to crack wise, but also make a heartfelt statement about love. If only she didn’t have to be the butt of dumb jokes about her inability to work technology.
It may be damning with faint praise to say that the mild not wild Book Club is only briefly cringe-inducing, but given the cast and comic potential, it should have been much better.
Book Club opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.