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Kinky jokes or otherwise, the star power of Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen cannot save “Book Club,” a lethargic comedy that plays out like a highlights reel comprised of scenes from Nora Ephron’s worst movies. Everything about it is so tired and on the nose — except for its leading actresses, who consistently remind us that they’re capable comediennes worthy of material less pedestrian.
In the movie, Keaton, Fonda, Steenburgen, and Bergen play lifelong friends, who, for the last few years, have taken part in a semi-formal book club in order to make sure they stay in one another’s lives. A smart move, to be certain: When we first meet them, it’s evident that this quasi-organization has come to be one of the few things to keep its members either grounded or sane.
Sharon (Bergen), who got divorced years ago, is so consumed with her work as a federal judge that she’s begun to liken her fluffy white Persian to a romantic companion. Carol (Steenburgen), who’s been married for decades, is having a difficult time adjusting to her domestic life now that her husband (Craig T. Nelson) is retired and stir crazy. Diane (Keaton) is mourning the months-ago death of her husband. Only Vivian (Fonda) seems satisfied: she’s a highly successful luxury hotel owner, is in the best shape of her life, and prefers a steady stable of sex partners to long-term relationships.
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It’s clear to the latter that this month’s book club will make for a perfect excuse to attempt to spice up her friends’ lives. So she, tasked with picking out the material, takes it upon herself to walk on the wild side. A smirk on her face, she pulls out E.L. James’ best-selling “50 Shades of Grey” during a fateful get-together. (If it were 2011, this would be the shiniest example of modern-day product integration.)
This, of course, is met with much pushback. But eventually, these women, who are at points in their lives where they’ve begun to realize that there’s no real reason not to take a sure-to-be harmless risk, suck it up.
Serendipitously, once the pages start turning, romantic lives start changing. Sharon is inspired to start utilizing the wonders of the dating app, and finds success there. Diane fortuitously strikes up a conversation with a good-hearted millionaire (Andy Garcia) after an awkward incident on an airplane and notices that there’s an obvious spark between them. A former flame of Vivian’s (Don Johnson, winkingly cast?) inserts himself in his old lady love’s life once more and intimates that maybe they made a mistake all those years ago by breaking up. Carol is inspired to give her sex life a facelift.
All this is supposed to come across like a saucier Nancy Meyers movie. It is so in line with her oeuvre, after all: It’s a featherlight romantic comedy that at first seems to be a wine-drenched, witticism-filled tale of friendship and unexpected romance, but eventually turns out to have more to do with the rediscovery of oneself.
As pointed out by Vanity Fair’s film columnist Richard Lawson, though, anyone who tries to reiterate the Meyers formula who isn’t, er, Meyers, usually fails. Meyers is a master of her craft who is generally able to make even the fluffiest seeming of movies, from 1998’s “The Parent Trap” to 2003’s “Something’s Gotta Give,” appear genuine and heartfelt rather than demographic-pandering.
“Book Club”’s co-writer and director, Bill Holderman, is less equipped to helm this sort of movie than someone we’d might consider a pale comparison. And so the film, though overarchingly amusing, often feels manipulative and obvious. It’s an explicit reinstatement of a formula, marred further by its almost frustrating inconsequentiality and unconvincing selling of the idea that E.L. James was indirectly responsible for helping these women get their grooves back. Though I can’t say I didn’t laugh at loud during a scene in which one of the characters compares her vagina to the Werner Herzog documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010), or when Bergen muses that Christian Grey is “50 shades of fucked up.”
“Book Club”’s paper-thinness becomes more aggravating the more we think about how terrific it might have been had it been produced by someone like Meyers. Keaton, Fonda, Steenburgen, and Bergen — all of whom (especially Fonda) provide these characters with such nuance and spunk — deserve more. And fans of these actresses, myself included, do too.