Partly a feature-length advertisement for Random House’s most famous erotic novel series, partly an unintentional satire about the dire state of affairs for older female actors in Hollywood, partly a bland romantic comedy that sticks to formula, Book Club’s eye-raising hook centres on a group of autumnal friends who read 50 Shades of Grey and find their libidinal juices suddenly brought to the boil.
It’s like a producer read one of those 2011 articles about middle-aged housewives renovating their own personal Red Rooms, click his ‘treatment’ fingers and then the thing sat in production for seven years. The Christian Grey fetish is old hat; a truly 2018 comedy about sexual innovation would focus on the sexy shenanigans of polyamory. Book Club isn’t just a bad comedy with great actors, it’s a bad comedy with great actors that’s three quarters of a decade out of date.
Each of the four friends have their own romantic hang-ups. Diane (Diane Keaton) is a neurotic widower with over-bearing daughters (Alicia Silverstone and The League’s Katie Asleton), swept off her feet by Andy Garcia’s charming, rumpled pilot. Vivian (Jane Fonda) is a hotel owner and permanent singleton who just loves the ride and dodges relationships wherever their threat appears, at least until old flame (Miami Vice’s Don Johnson) is back in town. Sharon (Candice Bergen) is a federal judge with a Gobi-wide dry streak who rolls her eyes at E. L. James’ acrobatics, but signs up to Bumble and starts swiping. Finally, Mary Steenburgen (Carol) is happily married (to Craig T. Nelson) but unsatisfied and desperate to ‘spice things up’.
Much of Book Club’s comic beats have the obviousness of a worse-than-average live sitcom, like Sharon shoo-ing her clerk away while her computer plays a dating site’s cringing auto-audio about ‘finding love’ (when’s the last time you saw a site with homepage audio?). And puns about shagging. So many puns. ‘Enough with the metaphors!’ sighs an exasperated Sharon, and we’re right with here. The screenplay, from Erin Simms and Bill Holderman (who also directs), is at its sturdiest when it sticks to the harmless hang-out banter of old friends, buoyed by a very game cast. But when it shoots for a gag, it’s as subtle as, well, James’ prose. At one point Carol drugs Craig T. Nelson with Viagra and they get pulled over, his own downtown truncheon rivalling the officer’s. And that’s the joke. He’s an old guy with a big khaki boner.
For something that’s arriving so long after its cultural moment, the film feels weirdly rushed in small details of editing and dubbing. At one point Garcia manages to say a line without moving his lips at all. The only thing keeping it afloat is the dependable efforts of the cast. Keaton has a bouncy, nervous energy, Fonda remains formidable but Bergen struggles a bit with punchlines. If nothing else, Book Club is a reminder that Steenburgen is an absolute star, radiating an inviting, light presence. Given stronger material, something closer to the tragicomedies of real-life love, she could be fantastic.
Book Club is, on paper anyway, an encouragingly bawdy rom-com for a demographic assumed to be mummified from the bellybutton south, but over time the book-plugging conceit bothers less than the film’s distance from economic and erotic realities. The two screenwriters are 1) a forty year-old woman and 2) a man, and it’s probably fair to say they might not have the surest handle on what the love lives of seventy year-olds are actually like. The production design pushes airless affluence, reminiscent of last year’s Reese Witherspoon rom-com Home Again, which seemed to take place entirely within a glossy catalogue for overpriced kitchen counter-tops.
The Google image search for this review was like a stock photo gallery for ‘rich white women at brunch’, which, as far aesthetics go, isn’t the most, well, exciting. Conor Smyth
Book Club is on wide release.