"Book Club" - ★ ★ ½
Jane Fonda said recently that "Book Club" was the most fun she's ever had making a movie. She was ostensibly talking about getting to know her castmates -- Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen -- but may also have been referring to the wine. There is lots and lots of wine in "Book Club" -- in fact, it seems like nobody's allowed to have a conversation after 4 p.m. without an oversized glass of chardonnay.
And come to think of it, not a bad idea for the viewer as well. If you have access to wine while you're seeing this film, go for it -- it'll smooth out the rough edges. "Book Club" has a script that's often so heavy on the corn -- make that corn syrup -- that it strains credulity and leaves you groaning. But then, darn it, suddenly it makes you tearful, with an unexpectedly genuine moment, or laugh out loud. It's a credit to the cast, and the cast only -- how many decades of top-level acting experience do we have here? All four women are fun, but allow us a special shoutout to the wonderfully witty presence of Bergen, who makes something worthwhile of every line she's given.
Vivian, Diane, Sharon and Carol are old friends, with a book club that's been meeting for 40 years. They're all in a different sort of rut. Vivian (Fonda) is a hotel owner with plenty of spice in her life -- but only in the afternoons, no strings attached. Diane (Keaton) is a widow, with adult daughters who worry about her to an absurd degree, and no love life. Carol (Steenburgen) is comfortably married, but her husband is more interested in riding old motorbikes than in his marriage. As for Sharon (Bergen), she's a federal judge, and defiantly single.
For their next book choice, Vivian decides something different is needed -- "Fifty Shades of Grey." (Yes, they're still trying to make a good movie from it.) The other women protest, but soon they're reading and giggling.
Somehow, the book causes an earthquake in each woman's life. For Carol, it's the realization that her marriage to Bruce (an amusing Craig T. Nelson) desperately needs spark. For Vivian, it's the uncomfortable realization that a meetup with a handsome old flame, Arthur, might actually open up her well-protected heart. (In perhaps the movie's wittiest joke, Arthur is played by Don Johnson, father of Dakota, who of course played Anastasia Steele in You-Know-What.)
For Sharon, it's about summoning the courage to launch herself into online dating. And for Diane, who's afraid to fly, the romantic challenge comes from a sexy pilot named Mitchell (Andy Garcia).
The intersecting storylines follow entertaining and sometimes very silly paths. Among the more ridiculous elements in the script, by director Bill Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms: the extent to which Diane's adult daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton, in thankless parts) treat her like a child. And Carol deserves a lot better than slipping Viagra into her husband's beer and squeezing into her old waitress uniform to seduce him.
Besides, what's so wonderful about the distracted Bruce anyway? Or the sweet but too-calm Mitchell, or charming yet boring Arthur? If there's a downside to having four such appealing female stars, it's that it makes the male characters seem utterly pointless.
Well, except for one thing.
So, if you're in the mood, pour yourself a nice cold white and watch these four women get what they want. You could do worse.
• • •
Starring: Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen
Directed by: Bill Holderman
Other: A Paramount Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for sexual situations and language. 104 minutes