Let’s get this out of the way first of all – Book Club is not a perfect film. It has an opening credits sequence that showcases some of the worst photoshop ‘fake family photos’ in cinema. It’s got some truly horrendous green screen. It’s very Nancy Meyers kitchen-esque.
But dammit, it’s one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen in 2018.
Book Club has a ludicrously simple concept – four women get together each month to read a book, as they have done for over thirty years. New month, new book, this time it’s a dive into Fifty Shades of Grey. Their eyes are opened up for the first time in a long while to the possibilities that the book offers, and in turn, they learn to love themselves and life once again.
The players are:
Jane Fonda’s Vivian – a successful, hotel owning, independent woman who turned down a marriage proposal from the love of her life, Arthur (an always watchable Don Johnson), years ago and bumps into him some forty years later.
Candice Bergen’s Sharon – a divorced federal judge who has been single for fifteen years. Confident, yet resigned to the fact that it’ll just be her and her cat til the end of time.
Diane Keaton’s Diane – a recently widowed mother of two who is conflicted over whether she can start a life again without her husband, or whether she should follows her daughters advice and move into their basement in Arizona.
And, Mary Steenburgen’s Carol – happily married to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), yet after his recent retirement, their love life has disappeared.
A genuine cast of elites: Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Don Johnson, as well as Andy Garcia, Alicia Silverstone, Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Begley Jr., Wallace Shawn, and a few more. That’s a truck load of talent.
And it’s well serviced talent with a great script by Bill Holderman and Erin Simms. Both Holderman and Simms take on producing hats here, with Holderman taking the helm for his first time as director. Don’t let their apparent newcomer status trick you – Holderman and Simms have a pedigree with this kind of ‘grey dollar’ material, both having produced Our Souls at Night, A Walk in the Woods, Lions for Lambs, The Company You Keep, and the upcoming The Old Man & the Gun. There’s a real sense that Holderman and Simms want to deliver material for some of Hollywood’s finest older actors, and at the same time deliver great quality cinema for ageing audiences.
The energy that drives Book Club helps fuel the notion that these stories matter. Yes, it’s another film about successful white folks, and nope, there’s not a person of colour or a member of the LGBTIQ+ community in sight, but it doesn’t mean that these kinds of stories aren’t deserving of being told. Look, I want more diversity on screen as much as everybody else – I want trans actors playing trans characters, I want disabled actors actually playing disabled actors, I want more people of colour on screen, I want all those stories to be told and more.
But, I also want eighty year old Jane Fonda to be able to lead a cast of similarly aged women and tell a story about women living life and rediscovering themselves. Hollywood so often limits actresses when they hit a certain age – as soon as you get your first wrinkle, you’re suddenly ‘mum’ material, and then six months after that, you’re ‘grandmother’ material, and then after that, you’re ‘dead person in coffin at the beginning of the film’ material.
Ageism is a thing that exists in the world, and with people living longer, and being forced to work longer, it’s great to see stories like Book Club cater to this kind of audience. Sure, as mentioned, this is a very Nancy Meyers level material – everyone has a clean kitchen bench, and the homes are immaculate, and everything is oh so white – but it’s still relatable. At its core, Book Club is a raucous celebration of growing old.
Just because you’re not as young as you used to be doesn’t mean you can’t live an active, full life. The problems of ageing are given fair coverage – when is the right time to start dating after a partner has passed away? How do you tell your adult kids that you’re out there in the world? How do you even broach the idea of dating as a senior in the age of the dating app? How do you get the spark in your love life back when it’s fizzled out?
All of these questions are raised and explored with great hilarity. It’s a given that Fonda, Keaton, Bergen, and Steenburgen, are all talented actresses, so the great chemistry the four have with each other is an added bonus. You genuinely feel that these four people have enjoyed a long, vibrant, deep friendship. While Fifty Shades does play a part in the ongoing narrative, it’s presence plays more as a nudge to keep the plot going, rather than getting the women into bondage and ‘red rooms’. This less about getting people into risque sex positions, and more getting them interested in the general idea of having a sexual relationship in their older years. It’s also not the only book that is brought up in the book club the women run, with a great running gag about Moby Dick, and a fantastic moment of shade thrown at Cheryl Strayed’s Wild which had me in hysterics.
In turn, Book Club even takes the chance to take the battle to the masculine stigma that surrounds growing old, and in turn, the problems that men have with discussing the ‘issues’ that come with growing old – namely, erectile dysfunction. Craig T. Nelson’s Bruce is believable partner to Mary Steenburgen’s joyous Carol, and he embodies the societally enforced shame that comes with his inability to perform in bed. Bruce’s response to retirement and lack of vitality is not to go to the doctor to discuss his options, but rather to try and repair the dusty old motorbike in the garage (a source of great hilarity).
Andy Garcia’s turn as a pilot who sweeps Diane off her feet is greatly appreciated. Look, Garcia is a man who will always be attractive, and there’s simply no denying that the sight of him wooing an eternally stunning Diane Keaton is one that makes the heart flutter. Equally, a dinner date that Richard Dreyfuss and Candice Bergen go on made me swoon a little, and the hump and dump that occurs afterwards is uproarious.
Book Club is one of those films that comes along at the right moment – it’s joyous, it’s warm, it leaves you smiling for days. Sure, it’s flawed, but dammit, it left me feeling the best I’ve felt in a long while. A good script and solid direction helps, but the chemistry that the cast have elevates it even further. This won’t be winning any awards, but take your mum along and you’ll both have a truly great time out at the cinema. It’s what I did, and I’d gladly go again.
(Oh, and one more thing, I doubt I’ll see a greater sight this year than Mary Steenburgen tap dancing to Meat Loaf.)
Director: Bill Holderman
Cast: Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen
Writers: Bill Holderman, Erin Simms