Film Review: Book Club (USA, 2018) is 50 Shades of Disappointment

You can imagine the meeting. “We need a film for the grey-dollar à la Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” “How about a story involving a book club? Older women like those.” “Sure, but let’s make it into a rom-com.” “We need to include sex because that sells.” “But they might be a bit old for Sex In The City so how about something like The Golden Girls?” And the answer you get is the thinly-plotted, rom-com also known as Book Club.

This film is directed by Bill Holderman and is co-written by the former along with Erin Simms. While we should be applauding a premise that sees some older females exploring their sexuality, the final characters are a little too similar (think: white and middle-class) and cartoonish for their own good. That’s trying enough in and of itself but when it’s combined with dialogue that is awkward and stilted, then you are left feeling like you’d be better off with an actual book. Case in point- have you ever heard a veterinarian say, “It sounds like we have a lethargic pussy on our hands.” Oh dear.

For the characters, we have a quintessential Samantha-type, Vivian (Jane Fonda) who is wealthy, has never married and loves to have sex. She winds up reconnecting with her old flame (Don Johnson). The adorable Diane Keaton plays her namesake, a lady who has been recently widowed after 40 years of marriage. Her overprotective kids (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) keep pushing her to move to Arizona, except that she meets and starts falling for an overzealous pilot named Mitchell (Andy Garcia). Candice Bergen is a scene-stealer portraying a no-nonsense judge who hasn’t had sex in the almost two decades following her divorce. She tries her luck at internet dating and winds up matching with Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn. Mary Steenburgen meanwhile, is married and in a sexless relationship with Craig T. Nelson.

The quartet of women (Fonda, Keaton, Steenburgen and Bergen) have been meeting for a book club since the seventies when they first read feminist prose together. Vivian decides that this month she will “shake” things up by nominating 50 Shades Of Grey, a good six years too late. In reading this trash, these ladies rediscover their long-dormant passions and desires. This is likely to be some kind of hokey metaphor for life.

You get the sense that this film could have been fun, hilarious and heartfelt just like The Golden Girls before it. But instead the jokes feel cheap, the characters hollow and things are too out-of-step with reality. This may be a silver-screen rom-com but can audiences forgive some of the contrivances here? And as a sidenote, do these bright and successful women really have to find a man in order to be happy? That’s a terrible message for a woman at any age.

The chemistry between this great ensemble cast is obvious. It looks like these award-winning actresses had a lot of fun while making this film. But only they can do so much to mask what is ultimately a slight script. This is a waste because this could have been bigger than the sum of its parts, and instead you feel like everyone has merely settled, something that is also terrible relationship advice.

Book Club may prove to be a fun little slice of escapism for people who don’t overthink the plot and those who can overlook its main problems. But most people will find that this film feels really dated in its approach. Book Club is certainly not the good book and it’s a film that was probably best left on the shelf where it belongs.

Review score: Two Stars (Out Of Five)

Book Club is in cinemas today.