Four older women, bonded by the passage of time and extremely expensive interior design, meet for a monthly book club. Their world is turned upside down when Fifty Shades of Grey is chosen for the group. This sounds like an elevator pitch from hell and yet somehow it snuck past financiers and ended up on our screens in the form of Bill Holderman’s Book Club.
The four friends are played by Diane Keaton (Diane), Jane Fonda (Vivian), Candice Bergen (Sharon) and Mary Steenburgen (Carol), which pretty much writes the characters for themselves. Keaton is our ditzy central character, Fonda a hyper-successful cougar, Bergen a high court judge with low self-esteem, and Steenburgen a marriage-hardened former ingenue. If the parts weren’t written with the characters in mind then the casting is perfect.
When Fonda’s Vivian brings Fifty Shades of Grey to their book club, they all shoot off on different paths of self-discovery. Diane agonises about moving to live with her kids and meets a beefy pilot (played by Andy Garcia) who is inexplicably referred to as ‘handsome’ several times. Vivian rekindles a lost romance with Don Johnson’s lothario, Arthur. Sharon tries internet dating and meets Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn in the process. And Carol attempts to reignite her increasingly sexless marriage to Craig T. Nelson. Not a paddle or whip in sight.
Given its immediately off-putting premise, Book Club is the best possible film that could have been made. It is utterly edgeless, without a real villain or character flaw in sight, but it is desperately sweet and, at times, much more naturalistic than most of its genre. Keaton is, as ever, full of magnetic, flustered energy, whilst Bergen is given all the best lines to deliver in completely deadpan style. You throw in a supporting cast of such heft that it can essentially waste talents like Alicia Silverstone (wasn’t she a big star once?) and Ed Begley Jr. and the film bristles with charisma. It ceases to matter that the stakes are lower than a pub football match; the cast go about their business with such charm it’s hard not to be sucked in.
It does, however, look terrible. The interiors are softly lit to the point of being visual ambien, and everything looks blown out and squishy (more edge going with every second). The lifestyle pornography is also not quite at Nancy Meyers’ level, though that is clearly its aspiration, but Andy Garcia’s desert oasis must be the nicest pad ever ascribed to a commercial airline pilot in movie history. In truth, it feels like quite a cheap movie, but with star-talent that, thirty or forty years ago, would’ve made this the marquee movie of the summer.
In the end it will be a hit with the coveted (Christian) ‘grey pound’ but might struggle to break through with younger audiences. What a shame that would be, because even if erectile dysfunction and slipping in the shower are not universal concerns, at its core Book Club is a wonderfully sympathetic story about female friendship and, for a mainstream rom-com, refreshingly honest about how people communicate with their nearest and dearest.
So whilst the relationship with Fifty Shades is being played up in trailers and marketing materials (particularly disconcerting given that Don Johnson’s daughter, Dakota, plays the protagonist in the NSFW movie adaptations) it is fairly inconsequential to the plot. The final product to come out of that deranged premise is a warm, often funny, film that has a lot in common with Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated, and is infinitely more relaxing than an evening in the red room.