The bottom line with Book Club, really, is that if you like the four classic female actors who headline the cast, it's basically a given that you'll like this movie. To be certain, with forty years or more of acting experience behind each one of them, they have all been in bad movies before, and this one isn't great -- but I must admit, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Each one of these women is a pleasure to spend time with onscreen, and having that with even one actor can elevate the experience. Here we get it four times over.
When it comes to the storytelling itself, first time feature director Bill Holderman (previously a director on films like A Walk in the Woods and All Is Lost -- this guy seems to specialize in vehicles for aging movie stars) really isn't offering anything new or innovative here. In fact there are some pretty eye-roll inducing moments a few times in the script, where I thought to myself, That's really dumb.
It's unfortunate, but there is something pretty forward-thinking about a mainstream movie featuring four women actors who range in age from 65 (Mary Steenbergen) to 72 (both Diane Keaton and Candice Bergen) to 80 (Jane Fonda). Women like this are getting comparatively steady work that they never would have gotten two or more decades ago, but even now it's unheard of for four of them to be headlining the same movie.
Some great actors play their love interests: Andy Garcia (62), Don Johnson (68), Craig T. Nelson (74), even Richard Dreyfuss (70), who we rarely get to see in movies anymore. Ed Begley Jr. (68) shows up as an ex; Wallace Shawn (74) has a brief scene as a date. So many old people! And okay, sure, there are still more men than women, but that's a technicality. Who gets ninety percent of the screen time? These four fantastic women.
Admittedly, the inciting incident -- what sets all four of them off on a late-in-life journey of self-discovery -- is definitively hokey: these friends, who have all met for a book club every month for forty years, move from intellectually stimulating literature to reading Fifty Shades of Grey. To be fair, they basically do it for a laugh, and none of them take it especially seriously -- but it is the tool by which a new kind of fire ignites in all of them. The book still gets made fun of, at least a little bit, but never in a mean-spirited way, which makes it easy to imagine author E.L. James signing off on its widespread use in the film. This is product placement at both its most brazen and its most seamlessly integrated.
And this is also why it's easy to imagine Book Club being a far worse movie than it is. It's actually perfectly decent, and made more fun by the actors in it -- all of them great, but none more so than Candice Bergen with her dry wit and smooth delivery.
It's not even as much about sex as you might expect. Sure, Carol (Steenbergen) is notably frustrated by her husband's (Nelson) apparent loss of sexual interest in her. This results in a sequence after she slips him a couple of Viagra pills that, like much of the movie, winds up being fun in spite of how hokey it is. Sharon (Bergen) delves into online dating for the first time, and her having nothing but pleasant experiences with that is beyond unrealistic, but whatever; watching her fumble with the website is funny anyway. Vivian (Fonda) has a story line that inverts tropes, where she is the successful woman fine with sex but uninterested in the complications of romance, but then falls for an old flame from forty years ago (Johnson). Diane (Keaton) curiously winds up being both the most focused-on character -- she narrates -- and the least interesting, with two daughters (played by Katie Aselton and Alicia Silverstone) laughably over-protective of their aging, widowed mother and trying to convince her to move from California to their basement in Arizona. In fact, this was the one story strand that genuinely annoyed me, because no woman in Diane's position in the real world would defer to her annoying children to the degree that she does.
And Holderman seems to have taken a page out of the Nancy Meyers playbook and given each of these fabulous older women fairly wealthy lifestyles that don't necessarily match their respective careers (or lack thereof). It makes for a lot of scenes set in beautiful homes, though, so Book Club is always pleasant to look at. This is a movie that could certainly use more depth in its unfolding plot, but focusing too much on that misses the point. No one here is aiming for anything higher than to have a good time, and these actors all clearly had a great time making this movie. That alone makes watching it about as pleasant -- and, surprisingly so, consistently funny -- as anyone could ask for.