Look — Book Club isn’t a great movie. The punchlines range from “just fine” to “tired,” the plot is largely uninspired, the characters are weirdly paint-by-numbers, and the talent of the charming cast is mostly squandered. Also — and this is an odd complaint for a comedy about women in their sixties reading 50 Shades of Grey but bear with me on this — the photoshop is terrible. There’s this long voiceover intro describing the history of the central friends in their younger years, and the fake “photos” used are just distractingly awful. Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen are famous women, with decades of photographic documentation available in order to construct convincing fake photos of them in their fictional past as friends. It’s, like, the only thing close to a special effect this movie attempts, and it still looks awful. I’m assuming they blew their budget on all the white wine these ladies chug throughout the film.
But here’s the thing: I still enjoyed it. And I’m not even the target audience! I realized this when I walked into my screening today and saw it full of older women. I mean, I was the youngest person there by at least 30 years, and everyone around me was having a blast. Which makes sense, because part of what makes Book Club so disappointing is that it actually does a number of things surprisingly well.
Firstly, it respects the inner lives of women of any generation. Not once did I hear anyone say the word “menopause,” and while there is a “lethargic pussy” joke in reference to a tired cat, for the most part the movie is just about trying to live your life in a way that brings you satisfaction. Diane (Keaton) is a recently widowed woman who got pregnant and married quite young. Her adult daughters (played by Alicia Silverstone and Legion’s Katie Aselton) are worried about her living on her own at her, ahem, advanced age — so they are trying to convince her to move to Arizona where they can keep an eye on her. On one of her forced visits to check out Scottsdale (gag), Diane meets Mitchell (Andy Garcia), a sexy fucking pilot who is determined to whisk her off her feet — and Diane starts to realize that maybe she’s never had a romance quite like this, not even with her husband.
Sharon (Bergen) is a no-nonsense federal judge who divorced her boring husband Tom (Ed Begley Jr.) 18 years ago and, though she doesn’t regret it, hasn’t really moved on since. No dating, no sex, no nothing. Well, she did buy that cat. The one that’s tired now. Tom, on the other hand, is about to get remarried to a much younger woman that he met through an online dating site — so Sharon decides that maybe it’s time to put herself out there and see if she’s still got it, too.
Then there’s Carol (Steenburgen), who is still happily married to the love of her life, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson). But since his retirement 6 months ago, they haven’t had sex — and she doesn’t know how to spark the passion between them again. And finally there’s Vivian, a fiercely independent hotel owner who loves sex but hates romance. She can’t even sleep next to a man. But when she encounters Arthur (Don Johnson), the one she let get away 40 years ago, she starts to wonder if maybe there’s something she missed out on in life.
Despite the fact that the central characters feel like they are ticking some sort of aged-up Sex and the City trait score card, the actresses truly do shine in their parts — though Bergen in particular is a delight. Her caustic line delivery and reaction shots are comedy gold, and even though I’m sick of this current parade of network reboots, I might just tune into Murphy Brown simply to see more of her. As for the male partners, they are mostly underutilized. Sharon has one-off dates with Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn, two actors I would have loved to see a bit more of. Nelson is sufficiently frustrated, Johnson is charming, and Garcia …
Andy Garcia can fucking GET IT. Sure, his character is a little too perfect in every way, but I don’t give a shit. That man somehow got hotter with age, and he sells his role with an amused twinkle in his eye. If old person romance is all poolside lounging with Andy Garcia, then let’s make sure this sub-genre takes off, shall we?
The four women have held a monthly book club for years, and the movie begins when Vivian announces that her choice for the month is 50 Shades of Grey. And while that may seem like a cheap conceit — “oooh, women spice up their lives with that naughty sex novel” — it ends up handling the idea of 50 Shades better than the book’s own movie adaptation. [Side note: Do you think it’s intentional that Don Johnson is Vivian’s love interest, while his own daughter played the protagonist in the 50 Shades films? Hmmm…]. The thing is, the story of 50 Shades of Grey is garbage. We can dissect the flawed sexual politics of it, or the inaccurate representation of BDSM culture, or the piss-poor fucking writing — but to me, the most interesting part of the 50 Shades phenomenon was always that is WAS a phenomenon in the first place. It’s interesting because of what readers/viewers have gotten OUT of it — and that’s what this movie nails on the head. Sure, there are some amusing shots of the women reading the novels in shock and arousal, or discussing how realistic any of it is, but mostly the book is there to inspire them to take some risks in their own lives and think about their own pleasure.
And honestly? That’s exactly what the series did for a lot of women. So in that respect, Book Club is actually kind of the perfect 50 Shades movie, one that captures the way it impacted women’s lives. And in the end, the film isn’t really about a sexual awakening at all, but about the nature of love, relationships, and desire — and way we can continue to learn more about love, and ourselves, at any age.
But seriously, some day I’d love to see a funnier, more original film with these women because they are a goddamn delight.