There are very few people out there who would regard the Fifty Shades series of novels, plagued by poor writing, lacklustre characterisation and inert narratives as the height of great literature.
They are likely the last books, especially now with their thoroughly ill-deserved time in the zeitgeist largely passed, that any self-respecting book club would devote any kind of time to, and yet the four lifelong friends who form the protagonist foursome at the centre of Bill Holderman’s directorial debut, Book Club, go down that very road, the first of many missteps in a film that clearly fancies itself, like the books at its heart, as far better than it actually is.
It’s clear that what Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms were aiming for was a witty, clever take, full of throwaway lines and warm friendships, on the perils and rewards dating in later years, an admission that age shouldn’t preclude anyone from finding love, sweet love, the kind that lasts beyond sex which, by the way, is also totally something people of a certain vintage should still be having (look at the books featured in the film for awkwardly obvious evidence of that).
It’s a laudable goal, one that is, by convention and intent, at the heart of every romantic comedy worth its Cupidian salt; Book Club, alas, is not worth its salt or any other precious commodity even remotely worth mentioning.
From the rather forced opening narrative, which is only saved by the quirkily-upbeat dulcet tones of one of the film’s stars Diane keaton, who plays Diane (yep, the fact that they named the character after the actress speaks to the film’s bankrupt imagination), a recently-widowed wife and mother, it’s patently clear that this is a film that is not going to trouble itself with any kind of nuance or originality.
Now, the less charitable among you might argue that romantic comedies, like many genres captive to well-established convention, have spent many a decade without an original scripted thought or approach troubling their warm-and-fuzzy one track minds, but the truth is there are a great many sterling examples of the genre out there such as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, not to mention the great efforts of the golden years of Hollywood such as those starring Spencer and Hepburn, that rebut this baseless allegation almost instantly.
As these examples more than ably demonstrate it is more than possible to adhere to much-loved, audience-friendly convention without offering upsomething dully and uninspiringly original; clearly the makers of Book Club never got the memo.
Even more egregiously they seem to have assembled their joke book and visual slapstick from a book of “dad jokes” somewhere, one that never met a tired old piece of innuendo it didn’t like or a nudge-nudge-wink-wink moment it didn’t want to embrace.
Example A is when Sharon (Candice Bergen), an august, well-respected Federal judge goes the vet with her cat for an assessment during which the poor animal medical professional is forced to make reference, and you suspect his eyes are rolling in his head even more than is visible on screen, to her “tired pussy”.
Yes, you may groan now, and join the rest of humanity with any kind of critical faculty left to them.
It’s plain too that neither Holderman nor Simms regard any of their four central characters, despite their age and accomplishments, as belonging to this particular group; Sharon, Diane, Vivian (Jane Fonda) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) are bright, literate, clever, funny women and yet each are saddled with plot lines and characters arcs so ridiculously simplistic and predictable that you have to wonder how any of them make it out of bed in the morning.
Diane puts up with ludicrous over-protective bullying by her daughters Adrianne (Katie Aselton) and Jill (Alicia Silverstone) who seem to view their sprightly mother as a geriatric neanderthal, good only for wrapping in cotton wool and sticking in a padded cupboard somewhere; fortunately for her, her pilot suitor Mitchell (Andy Garcia) sees far more than this and pursues her, their moments together one of the film’s few delights.
Similarly, Sharon, who has climbed to the top of her profession with the respect of colleagues and staffers is suddenly unable to lower the volume on her computer, resist peeking at messages from a dating site during an important meeting in her chambers or put on clothing properly, either in a store or after hilariously-inept sex with her date for the night George (Richard Dreyfuss).
Only Vivian and Carol seem to escape the worst of the indignities visited on their two lifelong friends and fellow book club members, but even they make more than a few suspect decisions as their respective would-be-boyfriend (Arthur, played by Don Johnson) and husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) can readily attest to (hilarious, I mean HILARIOUS, Viagra scene with a policeman anyone? Yeah, no I didn’t think so. Wise choice).
Any viewability possessed by Book Club, which does have some genuinely touching moments – the scene in the final act featuring Bruce and Carol is as smile-inducingly touching as it gets – and some laugh-out loud moments can be slated almost solely to the acting prowess and comedic talents of the four actors who save it from being a total dog’s breakfast.
Bergen consistently deliver her lines with Murphy Brown-levels of wit and snark while Fonda has all the knowing cheekiness and confidence that she brings to Netflix’s superlatively-written sitcom Grace and Frankie (it is everything this film is not); similarly Steenburgen is earnestly likeably intense and heartfelt and Keaton is goofily, endearingly fun.
Each actor gifts us with performances that are far better than the material they’re working with, testament to their talent and experience, and their ability to find humour in even the lamest of lines of which there are regrettable many.
The pity is that their diamond-like performances should have gone hand-in-hand with a script of equal quality; instead, they expend considerable effort trying to salvage both characters and dialogue, both of whom are so badly and obviously drawn that you wonder how it made past any kind of quality control process.
You can only imagine how good Book Club might have been if these four amazing actors had been gifted with a screenplay equal to their talents; unfortunately, the film is living, cringeworthy proof that it’s not simply enough to pair fantastic acting with sub-standard everything else and expect to get some sort of quality cinematic experience.
Book Club is a waste of everyone’s time, save for the fact that if you treat it as a manual of what not to do when you’re dating in your later years, you will be considerably ahead of Sharon, Vivian, Carol and Diane who really should have stayed well away from this film’s agonisingly-stilted idea of what dating and love is like, and stuck instead to reading and discussing books and drinking copious of wine (which is pretty much what you need to survive this film).