Friday, May 18, 2018

Book Club: A good read

Book Club (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and rather generously, for considerable sexual candor and some profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.18.18

Blend four accomplished actresses with a sharp script — particularly if laden with plenty of arch one-liners — and the results can’t help being delightful.

Sharon (Candice Bergen, left) is reluctant to take the "go for it" encouragement coming
from best friends Carol (Mary Steenbergen, center) and Vivian (Jane Fonda). At the same
time, all three are concerned about the romantic progress — or lack thereof — their
mutual friend Diane might be experiencing.
Such is the case with Book Club, a thoroughly entertaining showcase for stars Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen. The ribald premise invites — and delivers — a relentless stream of mischievously bawdy dialogue and clever double entendres, all courtesy of co-writers Erin Simms and Bill Holderman, the latter also making an accomplished directorial debut.

This film also is a game-changer for Simms, a once-busy actress making an equally noteworthy shift to writer/producer. (She shared behind-the-scenes credit with Holderman on 2015’s adaptation of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. This new film is much better.)

Book Club is another welcome entry in the Life Doesn’t End At 50 sub-genre of gentle romantic comedies, following in the recent footsteps of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Meddler. Simms and Holderman’s sweet and saucy script takes a perceptive poke at ill-advised expectations, unwarranted social conventions, and the silent resignation with which far too many people accept less than their fair slice of the romantic pie.

Diane (Keaton), recently widowed after 40 years of marriage, is regarded as just this side of a doddering invalid by her two well-meaning but insufferably condescending daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton). Vivian (Fonda), an enormously successful and wealthy hotel owner, has spent her life limiting male contact to short-term affairs with no strings attached.

Sharon (Bergen), a federal court judge, still hasn’t recovered from a decades-old divorce from ex-husband Tom (Ed Begley Jr.), who — twisting the knife even further — has just gotten engaged to a hotsy-totsy babe (Mircea Monroe, as Cheryl) who could be his granddaughter.

Carol (Steenburgen) hasn’t been able to rekindle the incandescent sexual spark that highlighted her 35-year marriage to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), who has become withdrawn and aimless after his recent retirement.

As revealed during an introductory montage that employs movie magic to fabricate a shared past for these four women, they’ve been friends since college, when they began a monthly “book club” gathering by starting with Erica Jong’s seminal 1973 novel, Fear of Flying. Somehow, though, the consciousness-raising excitement of that and other early literary choices has dwindled — all these years later — to conventional (i.e. dull and dry) selections.

The books, mirroring their own lives, have become staid, predictable and not at all invigorating.

Dismayed by her friends’ passive acceptance of romantic apathy, Vivian uncorks a bombshell by choosing E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey as their next assignment. Cue anticipated levels of amused disbelief, ridicule and even mild shock. But Vivian is adamant: Go forth, read and report back.

At which point, their lives ... change.

What’s perhaps most interesting is that James’ book isn’t actually much of a catalyst. Granted, its presence is good for plenty of giggles and eye-rolling one-liners, but the same result probably could have been achieved by D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. James’ effort obviously is more fashionably (and notoriously) au courant, but we get the definite impression that, well, it simply was time for things to change. Which is even sweeter.

(And, frankly, the only “impossible thing” this script demands that we accept, is the notion that not one of these accomplished and well-educated women would comment on James’ inept and atrociously clumsy writing style, and the utter unreadability of great swaths of this so-called book. We must make allowances.)

A chance encounter during a plane flight — Diane is obeying her daughters’ demand that she consider living with them in Arizona — leads to a meet-cute exchange with Mitchell (Andy Garcia). Their subsequent dynamic is quite endearing; Garcia is the epitome of graciousness, patience and good humor.

Similarly, Vivian is surprised by the unexpected arrival of Arthur (Don Johnson), a guy she fell in love with 40 years ago, but pushed away — at the time — because he didn’t suit her career path. Johnson, similarly, never has been more warm and boyishly charming.

The tentative steps toward communication in both cases — Diane and Mitchell, Vivian and Arthur — take place with believable dollops of uncertainty, vulnerability and wariness. Holderman coaxes engaging and sensitive performances from all concerned, while still including plenty of sweetly amusing verbal sparring.

Sharon, in turn, attempts to overcome the nagging fear that — as a woman of her age — she’s no longer relevant, or capable of being sexy. She bravely thrusts herself into the tempestuous realm of online dating: a leap of faith initially played solely for laughs, but which quickly becomes endearing ... particularly when her first “response” comes from George (Richard Dreyfuss, and — goodness — it’s nice to see him again).

Steenburgen and Nelson, finally, navigate the most “grounded” of these four relationships. Carol is bewildered and frustrated; Bruce is oddly distant and forever preoccupied, like a scientist attempting to research a particularly vexing hypothesis. They circle each other like planets whose orbits have diverged unexpectedly, but — even here — Holderman and Simms inject some clever humor. Bruce’s discussion of how he intends to restore a long-unused motorcycle is hilarious, particularly since we’re never quite certain if he’s aware of all the double entendres.

Holderman and editor Priscilla Nedd-Friendly gently cross-cut between these four storylines — never resorting to any sort of contrived tension or suspense — while also finding reason to gather the four women for occasional updates on each others’ progress (or lack thereof).

None of this is particularly profound, in cinematic terms, but that’s hardly an issue. Even familiar material can feel fresh when handled with such aplomb. The dialogue, interactions and frequently droll encounters wouldn’t feel any better or “appropriate,” if handled by much younger actors, and that’s the point: Well-constructed material, and romantic yearnings, are credible and endearing regardless of age.

A message that goes down easily here, and quite pleasantly, from start to finish.

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