Every culture practices some form of cruelty toward its elders. In ancient Japan, old people were allegedly taken to the mountains and left to die. Here in America, we put them in movies like “Book Club.”
This feeble excuse for a comedy made me angry, and if you have any cherished cinematic feelings for the quartet of actresses at its center, you may feel angry, too. Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen have almost two centuries of collective onscreen experience, often in groundbreaking roles. They’ve been nominated for a total of 13 Academy Awards and have won four (and that’s not even counting Bergen’s seven Emmy nominations and five wins for “Murphy Brown”). They deserve better. We deserve better.
But apparently the best Hollywood can do for legendary actresses who’ve had the temerity to grow older is an inane romantic comedy written at the level of a greeting card. The hook of “Book Club” is toothlessly “naughty” — four long-time best friends read “Fifty Shades of Grey” for their reading group and find their love lives perking up — but it also doesn’t make much sense. Why would a book club that we’re told began in the 1970s with Erica Jong’s rip-roaring “Fear of Flying” find anything of either sexual or literary value in E.L. James’s dreadful S&M-lite bestseller?
To be fair, the book is barely mentioned after the setup, and the focus shifts to the characters’ romantic travails and the gluey life lessons to be learned from them. Vivian (Fonda) is a businesswoman hotelier whose lifelong commitment to avoiding commitment takes a knock with the reappearance of a rascally old flame (Don Johnson in a porkpie hat). Diane (Keaton) is a widow with over-protective grown daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) and a potential new lover in airline pilot Andy Garcia. Sharon (Bergen) is a prim divorced judge dipping her toe in the senior online dating pool. Carol (Steenburgen) has a loving but sexually DOA marriage with husband Craig T. Nelson.
These all represent actual issues affecting actual humans, and there’s certainly a movie to be made about love and sex and the whole damn thing as experienced by people in the later decades of their lives. That movie is called “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” it stars Blythe Danner, and it played the art-house circuit in 2015. “Book Club” is the major-studio equivalent, and the fact that it will screen in about 100 times more theaters than “Dreams” is further cause for chagrin.
The heroines, we’re told, have broken down social barriers and/or lived intelligently and well. So why does the script treat them like vaguely brain-damaged children? Vivian goes splashing in a fountain with Johnson’s ruddy-faced old roué, and it feels like a dress-up version of what Fonda was doing a half century ago in “Barefoot in the Park.” We’re meant to laugh uproariously when Carol slips Viagra into her husband’s wine and merry erectile embarrassment ensues; he looks like he’s considering divorce and I’m with him.
Toward the end, “Book Club” turns up the piano-bar score and lets the characters lecture each other and us about What They’ve Learned. The script by Erin Simms and first-time director Bill Holderman leans on easy laughs, superficial homilies, and generic upscale décor, and there isn’t a genuine moment in it.
I’m sorry, there’s one: the scene in which Diane tells her pilot lover about her first kiss, at a middle-school dance, and Keaton’s moony presence, her ability to be both in the moment and slightly off its center, brings “Book Club” to sudden, lovely life. Bergen, too, has brief sequences where you realize how sorely her brainy tartness is missed. Note to Hollywood: Give Candice Bergen her own movie, and make it one that’s worthy of her. I dare you.
Fonda and Steenburgen never transcend the plastic sitcom shallowness of their roles, sad to say, and it’s distressing to think that many younger viewers will be coming to all four actresses for the first time here. I direct them, instead, to Fonda in “Klute” and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” to Keaton in “Annie Hall” and “Reds,” to Bergen in “Carnal Knowledge” and “Murphy Brown,” and to Steenburgen in “Melvin and Howard” and “Cross Creek.” I direct you all away from “Book Club.”
Directed by Bill Holderman. Written by Holderman and Erin Simms. Starring Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton. Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Don Johnson, Andy Garcia, Craig T. Nelson. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 97 minutes. PG-13 (sex-related material throughout, language)Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.