For a film about women who regularly gather together to discuss literature, Bill Holderman’s Book Club isn’t exactly a work of great erudition. It’s rather the sort of film where Moby-Dick is mentioned only for the purposes of making an obvious penis joke, where one character’s mildly urbane reference to the documentaries of Werner Herzog is merely the setup for another character to describe her friend’s vagina as “the cave of forgotten dreams.” Full of boozy banter and ribald farce, it’s a film that recognizes that book clubs are often more about camaraderie than deep textual analysis.
That’s certainly the case for the main characters: four older women who’d rather discuss their sex lives—or, rather, lack thereof—than some dull memoir about hiking. For the most part, the ladies have resigned themselves to a life without romance. Curmudgeonly federal judge Sharon (Candice Bergen) hasn’t had sex in 18 years, and has no interest in starting up again any time soon. Restaurant chef Carol (Mary Steenburgen) and her husband (Craig T. Nelson) have lost the spark. And while stay-at-home mom Diane’s (Diane Keaton) husband only recently passed away, their love life had hit the rocks long before. Only high-powered hotel magnate Vivian (Jane Fonda), the crew’s resident floozy, is consistently getting any, but all her screwing around is just a mask for her deep-seated fear of making a true emotional connection.
Everything changes, though, when they get around to the erotica phenomenon that introduced BDSM contracts to millions of sexually curious women: E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Naturally, the novel reignites the women’s sexual urges and sends them on a journey of post-menopausal self-discovery.
It’s said that casting is 90% of directing, and it seems to be 90% of the writing here. These characters are all crafted to play to the actresses’ strengths: Keaton’s lovable daffiness, Fonda’s strong-willed sexiness, Bergen’s sharp-tongued saltiness, and Steenburgen’s down-home charm. Full of boozy banter, bawdy farce, and a sprinkling of teary speeches, Book Club gives its actors’ comedy impulses plenty of room to roam. The actresses share an easy rapport in the film’s many wine-drenched bull sessions, and their characters are each paired up with appealing love interests, including Andy García as a dashing pilot who woos Diane and Richard Dreyfuss as a dowdy but charismatic accountant who shags Sharon in the backseat of a car on their first date.
Nothing that happens in Book Club is ever surprising, as all these women end up having sex, falling in love, and learning that life doesn’t have to end when you hit 70. And the film’s attempts to wring big laughs out of hoary comic tropes like online dating, dirty double entendres, and male enhancement pills often come off as strained; for one, watching Nelson’s character stumble around with a massive Viagra-induced boner is nowhere near as uproarious as the filmmakers seem to believe. But perhaps it’s apropos that Book Club is so paper-thin and frothy—the cinematic equivalent of the sort of beach read that would delight the women at the center of Holderman’s film.