The novelty of "Book Club" should not be underestimated. Here is an inviting, feel-good romantic comedy centering around four vibrant, individualistic women well over the age of sixty that does not end with a funeral or one of them bravely battling a disease. Were that not enough on its own, the screenplay by first-time director Bill Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms frequently sparkles, the characters are engaging, the situations they face feel honest, and the ensemble cast is filled out with a who's-who of wonderful acting veterans and legends. Pairing together Diane Keaton (2015's "Love the Coopers
"), Jane Fonda (2014's "This Is Where I Leave You
"), Candice Bergen (2009's "Bride Wars
") and Mary Steenburgen (2015's "Song One
") as the quartet of leads is surprising, inspired, and downright momentous. They slay every moment, clearly delighted by getting to play such textured roles at this stage in their careers.
For decades, Diane (Diane Keaton), Vivian (Jane Fonda), Sharon (Candice Bergen) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) have managed to remain tight-knit best friends thanks to their ongoing book club. When single, free-wheeling hotelier Vivian offers up E. L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey" as their latest read, the group's initial skepticism soon takes a turn as the erotic fiction begins to inspire their own love lives in different ways. Recent widower Diane, whose grown daughters Jill (Alicia Silverstone) and Adrianne (Katie Aselton) have been nagging her to relocate from her home in Santa Monica to Adrianne's remodeled basement in Scottsdale, is smitten by pilot Mitchell (Andy Garcia), but worries how a new romance would look only a year after losing her husband. Vivian is surprised to rekindle an old relationship with radio deejay Arthur (Don Johnson), but is hesitant to let herself get too close to a man she genuinely is beginning to care for. Federal judge Sharon, who hasn't dated since her divorce eighteen years earlier, decides to take a chance by signing up for a dating app. And restaurant owner Carol, who fears her thirty-five-year marriage is in a rut, sets out to spice up her relationship with recently retired husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson).
"Book Club" is a big entertainment, tonally light but consequential in its focus on four older women tackling the next phase of their lives. They may technically be past middle age, but they are self-sufficient, curious, and far from ready to check into Shady Pines. Themes of casual ageism, of modern dating, of moving on after loss, and of finding contentment and holding onto longtime love all play a part in a narrative that provides four affecting story threads and the thrill of seeing these great actors do their stuff. Meanwhile, well-chosen song selections (Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over," Meat Loaf's "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)," Tom Petty's "Runnin' Down a Dream," Roxy Music's "More than This") add welcome accompaniment and a dash of style to the proceedings.
Actresses often speak of how rare and special it is when they get to work with each other; in so many films, there is usually only room for one, and it's often as a love interest serving the central male-centric storyline. With this in mind, there is an undoubted exuberance in the scenes where Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen get to share the screen. They not only feel like trusted, supportive pals and confidantes, but there seems to be a real history behind them that informs their present.
Keaton, whose Diane narrates the film's bookends, is the centering force of the foursome, earning laughs and poignancy as she finds herself torn between living for herself and appeasing two adult daughters whose love for their mom tends to take on a belittling tone. Fonda is vivacious and stunning as Vivian, her lifelong inability to let down her guard and sleep next to another man possibly about to come to an end. Bergen is the comedic standout as Sharon, her attempts at using modern technology leading toward initial faux pas as she sets up her dating profile and an eventual rediscovery of her long-dormant sexuality. Steenburgen is an ace at comic delivery but what is most exquisite is the touching, low-key gravitas she brings to Carol, the mutual love between she and husband Bruce never in doubt, but the spark they once shared definitely endangered. Where Carol and Bruce end up is beautifully earned while diverting conventions in what a truly healthy, trusted, committed, lasting relationship should be based. The male actorsAndy Garcia (2014's "At Middleton
"), Craig T. Nelson (2011's "Soul Surfer
"), Don Johnson (2014's "The Other Woman
"), and Richard Dreyfuss (2010's "Piranha
") as George, an instantly enamored guy whom Sharon meets through her dating appare ideally cast, sharing nice chemistry with their onscreen partners while realizing this is first and foremost a showcase for their female co-stars. As it should be.
The proverbial wheel is not reinvented in "Book Club," so why does it frequently feel like it is? Indeed, there is little that is unique about the film's individual storylines except for this: the protagonists are women of a certain age too often marginalized in Hollywood, and here is a picture that does not pander but certainly understands how starved older audiences must be for seeing themselves projected back on the big screen. Writer-director Bill Holderman demonstrates that age really is but a number; this is a universal romantic comedy of wisdom, sly humor, and an emotionally savory throughline. A late monologue Keaton's Diane delivers to her daughters, giving them the kind of reality check that changes minds while helping her to reclaim her power as a mother who does know best, is unforgettably written and performed. For this lover of books, one wishes there were more deep-dive literary discussions in a film called "Book Club." Clearly, though, the congregation of the title is but a jumping-off point for four ladies who have a lot of living yet to do. The act of watching this lovely film is much like losing oneself in the pages of an enthralling novel: it's warm, it's enveloping, and it speaks in ways great and small to the human experience. A cozy blanket and a steaming cup of hot cocoa are optional but nevertheless recommended.