BOOK CLUB: Four Great Ladies and a Few Good Men

It’s pretty hard to resist the combined charm and talent of Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen and you might as well not try. This story of four longtime friends helping each other through a smorgasbord of romance-related crises has heart, while being oddly, and entertainingly, politically incorrect.

Sharon (Candice Bergen), is a federal judge still trying to get over her divorce from her husband, whom she left 18 years earlier largely for not being her intellectual equal. (It might have been interesting to read the pleadings on that one – “Defendant repeatedly misstates, misquotes and misinterprets Shakespeare…”) Vivian (Jane Fonda), the owner of an upscale hotel, on the other hand, has never been married. She turned down a marriage proposal from an ardent suitor (Don Johnson, no less) in her twenties, and has never since let any other man get that close. Carol (Mary Steenburgen) is a successful restaurateur, still married to her recently retired husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), though their perennially passionate sex life has cooled off of late.

Only the recently widowed Diane (Diane Keaton) has never worked outside the home, and she is being pressured by her grown daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Astleton) to uproot and move closer to their supervision in Arizona.

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For decades the four main characters have gotten together every month for an informal book club, a thinly-veiled excuse to drink wine and talk. When it’s Vivian’s turn to bring the book, she brings four copies of the soft cover edition of Fifty Shades of Grey, much to the shock of the other women. What exactly the book fifty million people wouldn’t admit to reading has done to deserve this sort of product placement isn’t clear, other than the fact that Don Johnson’s daughter starred in the movie version. But for the main characters in Book Club, E.L. James’ S&M Cinderella story is not just assigned reading but the catalyst for seismic change.

For one thing, in the sort of coincidence which only seldom happens except in Hollywood, it’s suddenly raining men. Vivian, the group’s only sexually active member, expressly rejects romance and treats sex as a sport. “I don’t need anyone – that’s the secret of my success,” she tells her friends.  That assertion is abruptly challenged when Don Johnson, her once and future suitor, suddenly appears in her lobby. Some men would turn tail and bolt when confronted with a woman who’d rejected their proposal, but not Johnson’s Arthur, who’s interest in the still-ravishing Fonda is undiminished and completely understandable.

Diane meets the handsome and preternaturally self-assured Mitchell (Andy Garcia) on an airline flight – she of course, is afraid of flying (naturally, since the Book Club’s first read was Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying). Mitchell is, and you knew he had to be, an off-duty commercial pilot who, thanks to a patent he holds, independently wealthy.

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The initially scandalized Sharon ventures into the dating pool for the first time in almost 20 years. She joins a dating site and connects with single men Richard Dreyfuss and former Murphy Brown co-star Wallace Shawn, both professionals, and both, apparently, completely decent guys. It’s a happy thing to report that the redoubtable Candice Bergen can still deliver a zinger with the best of them. Bergen dominates the movie in almost every scene she’s in, thanks to her peerless timing and inimitable delivery.

Steenburgen still has one of the best smiles in the business, and she shines, as she always as, at finding every ounce of dimension in her character. Inspired by Anastasia Steele’s adventures, Carol asks her husband whether he’s ever thought about spanking her. When he doesn’t get the hint, she puts Viagra in his beer.

Craig T. Nelson, who’s seldom out of work for more than fifteen minutes, has worked with all the leading ladies in the movie other than Bergen, and had charming chemistry with Steenburgen. His Bruce isn’t a bad guy, just a man who’s facing life after retirement with some trepidation he’s been reluctant to discuss.

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The performances from the leading ladies are all top drawer, to the point that you can’t even criticize Diane Keaton for not wandering far beyond her trademark insecure icon. What’s refreshing is that all the men in the story, even Sharon’s ex (Ed Begley, Jr.), are all perfectly decent guys. The movie unexpectedly, and wisely, sidesteps the expected cliché when he’s given an opportunity to rub his sexy young fiancée in Sharon’s face, and doesn’t.

Book Club is a dialogue-heavy movie that at least offers witty dialogue, thanks to the script by first time director Bill Holderman and Erin Simms. The direction is utilitarian at best – Holderman and DP Andrew Dunn seem content to conjure a Nancy Meyers-esque world of honeyed sunshine and over-sized white kitchens filled with plants. The necessary hand-offs between the main character’s individual story lines are not handled with uniform smoothness, though audiences will likely neither notice nor care.The inevitable green screen shots used to accomplish a romantic small plane flight over the desert are oddly terrible.

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Book Club does not go so far as to suggest that what all these strong female characters really needed was a man. It does suggest that men aren’t all bad, and that relationships can enhance the quality of life,  even and maybe especially late in life. It would be a sad statement indeed if that idea was actually radical. But maybe its strongest message is that aging isn’t the same as being dead, and that even senior citizens can learn, love and make their last decades their best decades.

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