Venue reviews: Book club

When picturing Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen taking turns face-pulling at Fifty Shades of Grey, it becomes starkly obvious how much Book Club screams ‘boardroom epiphany’. With only the vaguest tonal resemblance to Nancy Meyers’ films, Bill Holderman’s debut is unavoidably a star vehicle targeted at a certain generation; the club itself a convenient ploy for shunting the film amongst better, more sensitively-written entries in what has been informally dubbed the ‘we-still-got-it’ genre.

It’s truly a relief the four were signed on together, however, because in anyone else’s hands, Book Club would have been every bit as dreadful as I was expecting it to be. As it turns out, the revered golden girls emit a fond chemistry grounded in the cackling naughtiness of E.L James’s novel, in a way that manages to keep this knitted-scarf of innuendo unravelling entirely.

The four are old college friends, who’ve managed to keep their friendship going by creating a monthly book club. Having exhausted their back catalogue over not-ungenerous doses of alcohol, it falls to Fonda’s Vivian to propose the ultimate game-changer in their literary odyssey: E.L James’ notorious Fifty Shades saga.

As you might expect, it quickly transpires the odyssey the book triggers is all but literary. After discussing the various pitfalls they’ve experienced in their sex-lives, James’s novel challenges them to confront their hang-ups about age and awaken their buried love lives.

For what is largely a string of innuendo slung across a superficial book concept, the script is greatly supported by the delivery of the main cast. The highlight is Bergen’s Sharon: a federal judge whose professional demeanour keeps her hilariously separate from the dirty, flirty world of online dating. As she works her way through Bumble, against inconvenient pop-ups that seem to emanate from her computer at all the wrong moments, watching Bergen stiffen and cringe her way through hip nightclubs and awkward blind dates (one of whom is a sadly underused Wallace Shawn) quickly becomes a tentpole for the entire film.

Carol (Burgensteen) isn’t much luckier. Married to a Craig T. Nelson who ogles his motorcycle more than his wife (don’t worry, the metaphor certainly isn’t wasted), her painstaking attempts to woo her deflated husband – to the point of spiking his drink with Viagra – hums comfortably enough to the beats of an ‘oh naughty’ comedy.

To its merit, there is a perceivable level of sympathy written into the sexual caper. Issues of mortality, repression and what it means to be a parent certainly aren’t lost on Holderman (nor his screenwriting counterpart, Erin Simms), and there are moments in Book Club that almost feel out of place in how poignantly they come to light. Nelson’s Bruce evokes the grounded frustration of his earlier role in NBC’s Parenthood, and despite a host of uncomfortable dinner conversations and green-screened flying sequences, Diane (Keaton)’s attempts to convince her adult daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton make a believable – if rather irritating – duo) to stop mollycoddling her into an early grave place an uplifting emphasis on the life in ‘later life’.

To be clear, there are some decent laughs to be had, and I was happy to join the audience of twinkly-eyed mothers I attended within chortling at all three of them. Admittedly, I’m aware I may not be the target audience for this send up to later-life raunchiness, but in the wake of Something’s Gotta Give, Crazy, Stupid Love and Netflix’s stellar Grace and Frankie (in which Fonda’s Book Club role is treated with genuine, biting wit), I can’t pretend there aren’t other we-still-got-it comedies I’d sooner recommend.

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July 2021
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