REVIEW – “Book Club” Leaps Off Page, Goes for the Heart, Barely Makes Mark

by Joe Hammerschmidt

Of this weekend’s freshman trio of wide releases, Deadpool 2 will be the clear winner, but counter programming is always where you least expect it, and a comedy with golden-age actors and actresses may be the farthest from what would work best as a proper counter, but it wouldn’t be right to complain all too much. As tired as its formula is, Book Club still plays to the strengths of its brilliant ensemble cast, equaling to the type of film you wish would’ve been more that what it turned into by the final act.

The titular club, a quartet of best friends 40+ years strong, survived through multiple romantic and family-based incidents, unfazed in still meeting every month for discussions. Yet, one throws in the sexual awakening of 50 Shades of Grey, and a domino effect starts to fall. Diane (Diane Keaton), Vivian (Jane Fonda), Sharon (Candace Bergen), and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) all face the dance of fate with suitors old and new. Diane experiences a shift in her family’s dynamic, the stress only quelled by the adventurous Mitchell; Hotel owner Vivian falls head-over-heels once more for travel-hungry ex Arthur (Don Johnson); Sharon, a reputable circuit judge with a son about to get hitched, goes all out with the excitability of an online dating profile; and Carol determines herself to reignite a dormant sex life with on-the-rocks hubby Bruce (Craig T. Nelson).

If the plot dynamic of reconnecting with one’s younger self, often while staring down at one’s adult children, sounds rather familiar, then it’s clearly retreaded territory to sophomore writer and rookie director Bill Holderman. He toyed with similar concepts three years prior with the fun-yet-restrained A Walk in the Woods. Working once more with frequent Redford collab Erin Simms on the script help to add a woman’s touch, all while regrettably hanging on a trifle to that cliched old-school buddy-buddy motif. To see Book Club more as a girls-only outfit with the long line of male interests in the wings, each of the four pairs committing to convincing chemistry, allows a little added freshness to an otherwise stale framing device. Alas, the upticks are only short-term lasting.

Like Walk, and multiple films in the same category, a bolstered cast can only mask so much of a wavering plot-line that wishes it could stand above just fluffy niche material. It’s not meant to be a classic romance story that would ignite the imagination (think Sleepless in Seattle), but it’s not any crass or leaning towards quirks to keep an audience engaged. It’s still nonetheless a quaint, middle-of-the-road type adventure flick, and one can’t help it if the established ensemble really keeps the activity on screen buzzing alive.

Amid the actors I hadn’t considered were still getting work, or were taking short intermissions in their careers were Bergen and Johnson, but especially Johnson as I honestly couldn’t think of anything major he had starred in following the end of Nash Bridges. Same for Bergen, post-Boston Legal. But indeed pleasant they both kept working, alongside much of the ensemble. Of course, the characters remain very true to the archetypes one would indeed consider essential to a film like this. Garcia’s still the hotshot, it’s a part of his nature; Nelson an indecisive sort, who’s not as confident; Johnson, the bravest, if not also a power-mad fool. And among Bergen’s online pairings, I may have hit a little confusion myself at that point in the film over who was who, but at least Ed Begley Jr’s presence to give the uncertain Bergen a boost of confidence certainly helped her out above the short-term. As for the other ladies, Miss Keaton is clearly re-embracing those same sensibilities one would’ve noticed two decades prior with The First Wives Club, eager to try something new; Fonda just ducks for cover in her searching for love. And Steenburgen, she likely spurns the more humorous moments; an extended Viagra gag that otherwise wouldn’t fit any other film, simply plays too well here. Ditto for a tap-dancing scene, set to the strains of Meatloaf. One should find that eye-rolling, but there is still something quite magical, even inspiring in the impossible.

The message, therefore, is not too easy to decipher with this Book Club picture, but it is there, that it is never too late in life to achieve the impossible. And while the film itself, its construction, its framework leaves so much to be desired, execution-wise it holds nothing back, bound to take audiences, mostly moms (one can hope) on a ride that would promise to inspire them to go beyond themselves, and defy the limitations of age. It’s not a perfect film, by any standards; yet it is no less enjoyable, with certain restrictions. A very easy romp that doesn’t necessary earn a spot on the average audience’s summer watchlist, but if you are of a certain age, considerably beyond the age you feel akin to, it’s fair game, and oftentimes a fun game that could warrant a second act if anyone else thinks the ending sets one up well enough. (B-)

Book Club is in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for sex-related material throughout, and for language; 104 minutes.