On paper, Book Club possesses a wonderful cast of A-List stars who capture your eye. Delve deeper, however, and all you’ll find is shallow, one-dimensional characters and uninventive storytelling that borders on the offensive.
A shallow, predictable and surprisingly dull middle-aged romantic comedy-drama, director Bill Holderman’s debut feature Book Club takes a lot of effort and plenty of coffee to sit through. Better known as a producer, Holderman tries to prop up the awful script he’s concocted with Erin Simms by hiring four grade A female stars. But it doesn’t work, despite some pleasing camaraderie between the agreeably talented cast.
I’m not one to bleat about the Bechdel Test but Book Club could be the poster child for everything that women are sick of seeing on screen. These privileged characters do nothing but talk about men as if a successful relationship is the only route to happiness. It would be sickening if it weren’t so laughably dumb. I’m a little surprised long-time activist Jane Fonda agreed to take part in this but then again the pay cheque was probably too much to turn down.
I think Holderman thinks it’s funny that the locker room dirty talk between showering cheerleaders is switched from high school to “old school” as our protagonists are well into their sixties. But it isn’t. Indeed, as these four rich, successful women moan about life and relationships (and, oh, god, a lack of good sex – or no sex at all), I wondered if their “book club” had read anything beyond prose aimed at pubescent teens with short attention spans and limited vocabulary.
Okay, so this terrible book is compelling enough to shock these four characters into re-inventing their lives. Fine, they must be a bit dumb then. But how would such simpletons have managed to forge very successful careers: one is a hotel owner, another a federal judge!
While the conceit to turn their lives around comes from – yawn – E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (which gives the film a dated sensibility that’s fitting given Holderman’s archaic conservatism in regards to life fulfilment and happiness), Book Club finds not a shred of empathy from an audience looking in horror at these characters bleating about missed opportunities, misfortune and unfortunate events while sleeping comfortably in their beautiful big houses.
It’s also damning that the director, whose work as a producer has given us the pleasing likes of A Walk in the Woods and Lions for Lambs (working with Robert Redford at his company, Wildwood), wastes the talents of such a good principle cast. He even manages to allow love interests such as Richard Dreyfuss and Andy Garcia to drift in and out of the story with phoned-in turns whose smiles are coloured by the dollar signs of their contracts.
There is one shining light in all this gloom. Maybe, two. Keaton does manage to find that likable charm we’ve seen in some of her best work, while Fonda is biting in her straightforwardness. It’s also nice to see the Hollywood spotlight shone not just on a cast largely entirely over 60, but relationships between older men with women of the same or similar age. But Book Club’s positives could be summed up in a screenshot of the coupled-up group; one-hundred minutes is a bit much for such thin and uninventive material.
Dare I admit I quite liked Fonda’s sexual liberation, her life seemingly a series of casual encounters and one-night stands. She’s not unhappy at the beginning of the film and I’m not sure why I should believe she’s any happier at the film’s end. That Holderman and Simms’ script is fundamentally fixated on “love, actually” and the notion of happy “endings” leaves Fonda’s Vivian with no other option but to convert to rose-tinted sentimentality and the supposed unburdened love of a man. Ultimately, for any step forward Book Club takes, it stumbles backwards three or four. Don’t bother signing me up.
Written by Amilia Totten
Directed by: Bill Holderman
Written by: Bill Holderman, Erin Simms
Starring: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen
Released: 2018 / Genre: Romantic Comedy
Country: USA / IMDB
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Book Club is out now on Digital, DVD and Blu-ray.