Better With Age: Our Review of ‘Book Club’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - May 18, 2018
Better With Age: Our Review of ‘Book Club’

At first glance, the new film Book Club is about a group of friends who spice up their love lives after reading Fifty Shades of Grey. But director Bill Holderman’s true interest is exploring what it takes to push people outside of their comfort zones. And what tempts people out of their comfort zone more often than love? Holderman and screenwriter Erin Simms, explore love, sex, and intimacy from a point of view we don’t often see in pop culture. And that’s the perspective of mature women.

Book Club tells the story of four women who maintained their 40-year friendship by holding monthly book club get-togethers. There’s Diane (Diane Keaton), a widowed mother, ready to pack up and move in with one of her daughters in Arizona. Sharon (Candice Bergen) is the repressed one in the group. She’s a federal judge who has it all together behind the bench, but her love life is non-existent. She hasn’t knocked boots with someone since the Clinton administration.

Carol (Mary Steenburgen) is happily married to her stud of a husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson). It looks like Carol has the most ideal life of the four but she can’t figure out why Bruce put their sex-life is on hiatus. And then there’s Vivian (Jane Fonda), a woman who has it all. She’s brainy, beautiful, and rich but she applies a “hit it and quit it” policy to her sex life. The ladies shake up their romantic lives after they choose Fifty Shades of Grey as their book club’s monthly title.

Book Club doesn’t straddle that awkward comedy/drama line where the jokes take a backseat once things get serious in the third act. It knows it’s a comedy and starts firing off the jokes right from the jump and keeps them coming until the credits. Too often, Book Club resorts to jokes that are so corny they’ll make you roll your eyes. What saves the movie is that it peppers in plenty of raunchy humour. Sex is a central theme of the film – they’re reading Fifty Shades after all – so it shouldn’t be a surprise the humour goes to risqué places. It never ascends to Ted or American Pie levels, but one heroine grabs a man’s junk in the first 10-minutes. The cast’s great chemistry adds some punch to the weaker dad-jokes helping the funny bits hit harder than they have any right to. Speaking of that cast…

If you handed a film school instructor Book Club’s script (s)he would hand it back covered in red ink. It’s loaded with stuff that drives instructors mad. The film’s gravest offence is violating screenwriting lesson #1: Show don’t tell. Holderman bookends the film with characters describing who they are and how they feel. The plot beats are so predictable you could spot them from that Tesla Roadster Elon Musk shot into space. And the casting is so unimaginative I guessed each lady’s role by looking at Book Club’s poster. Was there ever any doubt that Diane Keaton was playing the Manic Pixie Dream Granny? Even the way Holderman splices together the four stories feel choppy and jarring. But despite all these complaints, the film still works. Barely. The legendary cast makes this flawed film a fun watch. That’s how star power works.

These ladies have great chemistry with each other and with their male love interests. Diane’s dalliance with Mitchell (Andy Garcia) is so damn enjoyable to watch I was upset when the story cut back to the other ladies. I could watch Diane and Mitchell in a standalone romcom. Of the four ladies, Bergen receives the least screen time. This is a lady who headlined one of TV’s all-time great sitcoms, and she’s doing spot duty. Holderman is working with an embarrassment of riches and I shudder to think what this movie would be with a lesser cast. Book Club left me yearning to see the four leads reunite and work with stronger material.

There is one area where this film shines, though, and that’s its positive themes. This is a sex-positive comedy featuring four female leads who are senior citizens. In 2018, it’s tough to sell a script with any one of these three elements. Vivian’s sex drive stays dialled up to 100. Vivian probably lost count of her sexual conquests, but no one shames her or treats her as a punchline. Sharon, who has abstained from sex for years doesn’t do so to out of righteousness but more so out of awkwardness. This film wants us to know that sex is an extension of love and romance – even well into old age. Sexuality and intimacy are essential to who we are and it’s beautiful to see mature women pursue these needs and desires in a mainstream comedy.

Book Club’s exceptional cast smooths out some of the film’s rough spots. Keaton, Fonda, Bergen, and Steenburgen infuse the material with enough touches of warmth and humanity to keep you drawn in. It’s likely that Book Club’s tale of elderly love won’t appeal to a mainstream audience, which is a shame. The film’s female-led cast, its depiction of love among seniors, and its sex-positive message deserve time in the spotlight.

  • Release Date: 5/18/2018
This post was written by
Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based freelance writer and pop culture curator. Victor currently contributes insights, criticisms, and reviews to several online publications where he has extended coverage to the Toronto International Film Festival, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada. Victor has a soft spot in his heart for Tim Burton movies and his two poorly behaved beagles (but not in that order).
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