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Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen in Book Club.

Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Pictures

  • Book Club
  • Directed by: Bill Holderman
  • Written by: Bill Holderman and Erin Simms
  • Starring: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen
  • Classification: PG
  • 100 minutes

rating

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “Bechdel Test,” that witty barometer of female-friendly fiction that requires a story to feature two women who talk about something other than a man. Perhaps screenwriter Erin Simms and writer/director Bill Holderman have heard of it too, but they certainly haven’t internalized it. The four female protagonists in their movie Book Club do nothing but talk about men — or having sex with men or not having sex with men — for the entire 90-minute comedy. The whole thing feels like a late-night, dorm-room gab fest, except that the four women in question are well over 60, which is the gag.

Four older ladies – one widowed, one divorced, one married but bored and one sexually charged but always single – are encouraged by the most adventuresome of this quartet to read the erotic romance Fifty Shades of Grey. Suddenly, they find themselves hot and bothered, or at least newly concerned about the state of their love lives. The lively Carol (Mary Steenburgen) tries to spice up her stale marriage; the long-divorced and earnest Sharon (Candice Bergen) experiments with internet dating; the recently widowed Diane (Diane Keaton) finds herself chatting to a friendly stranger on a plane; and the all-sex-no-strings Vivian (Jane Fonda) bumps into an old flame.

Considering that the latter three encounters produce Richard Dreyfuss, Andy Garcia and Don Johnson, respectively, you’d figure these ladies would need look no further. They all, by the way, have either soaring professional lives or seriously gorgeous houses or both, so they appear to be well provided for in other departments, too. With the romance now neatly sewn up, maybe we could just ditch the discussion of plot and theme, and get on with the white wine.

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But, no: If Fonda and Johnson were in a clinch by the end of act one, we wouldn’t have much of a movie, so Simms and Holderman dutifully produce some large but utterly transparent blocks of the kind you’re taught to assemble in Screenwriting 101. Diane’s over-protective children wrench her out of the arms of the friendly stranger, played as very sexy but very safe by the affable Garcia; Sharon is shamed out of internet dating when she bumps into her ex-husband and his trophy girlfriend; Carol’s attempts to get frisky merely embarrass her husband; and the commitment-phobic Vivian is spooked when Johnson’s perfectly charming and perfectly reasonable Arthur wants to get serious.

In Holderman’s ineffectual hands, this leads to comedy so tired and morals so sentimental it’s sometimes hard to keep awake in Book Club. Diane falls off an air mattress into a pool; Carol’s long-suffering husband (played by the equally long-suffering Craig T. Nelson) gets a massive erection at an awkward moment. Sharon makes a speech about love and Vivian has second thoughts. In their great haste to dismiss the notion that people might get too old for romance, Simms and Holderman swing the pendulum so far in the opposite direction they side with the even more offensive idea that no woman at any age is complete without a man.

Still, even as it condescends to its characters, Book Club does have four things to recommend it: its seasoned performers, still game, still charismatic and improbably ready to give this dubious project their all. There’s the unflagging Fonda, veteran of the group, playing Vivian with gritty determination to prove there is such a thing as a tasteful Mae West imitation, while Bergen, sacrificing herself for the good of the whole, is willing to deadpan her every scene. Steenburgen, the baby, is sweetly energetic and Keaton offers several flashes of her legendary comic charm. As Garcia takes her into his arms while Johnson embraces Fonda, you do have to thank Book Club for one major innovation: How often does Hollywood pair its attractive older men with leading ladies who have a good decade on their partners? There, at least, is one small step for womankind.

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