Book Club opens with a series of painfully fake-looking photos featuring the younger versions of its main characters, supposedly four college friends who started the group for reading and discussing literature (but mostly drinking wine and gossiping) as undergraduates. Never mind that there are 15 years between the ages of the oldest and youngest actresses playing these characters, or that nothing about them indicates the long, shared history that would accompany decades of friendship. That kind of bland superficiality defines Book Club, whose chief appeal is seeing four legendary actresses engage in juvenile sexual double entendres despite their advanced ages.
The members of the club are all in their golden years, and all are dealing with the challenges of aging: Diane (Diane Keaton) is a widow whose adult daughters are pressuring her to move to Arizona so they can take care of her; Sharon (Candice Bergen) is a powerful judge who’s still hung up on the man she divorced 18 years earlier (especially once she finds out he’s getting married to a much younger woman); Carol (Mary Steenburgen) is a restaurateur who’s struggling to put the spark back into her marriage with her retired husband (Craig T. Nelson); and Vivian (Jane Fonda) is a wealthy hotelier who’s been resolutely single her entire life.
Seeking to spice things up, Vivian decides that the group will read E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, and much of the movie plays like an extended commercial for James’ best-selling BDSM-themed novel trilogy. Thanks to the books’ titillating content, Diane takes a chance on dating a pilot (Andy Garcia), Sharon signs up for online dating, Carol tries to restart her husband’s sex drive, and Vivian rekindles a relationship with an old flame (Don Johnson). There isn’t enough room in the movie to thoroughly explore each of these storylines, so they get boiled down to their most basic plot elements, proceeding in broad, simple strokes to predictable outcomes.
The male supporting characters are all one-dimensional, but the core women don’t fare much better. Keaton gets the most substantial character arc, and she has strong chemistry with Garcia as an endlessly patient and supportive suitor. Bergen’s online-dating plot, meanwhile, goes absolutely nowhere, and seems to have some connective scenes missing in order to get to its eventual dead end. Fonda and Steenburgen end up somewhere in the middle, although Fonda’s flashy sexpot generally steals the spotlight whenever she’s onscreen.
Although the movie advocates positive inclusivity for older women to explore sexuality and romance, director and co-writer Bill Holderman never passes up the chance to titter at senior citizens saying or doing something mildly naughty, and the sex-related puns are all painfully belabored. Holderman throws in plenty of Nancy Meyers-style house porn along with the blatant product placement (for the Fifty Shades series, for online dating app Bumble, even for industrial-strength Italian-food chain Buca di Beppo), but he doesn’t have even Meyers’ rudimentary visual sense, instead shooting the entire movie in flat, indifferent compositions, including some particularly glaring uses of green screen.
Individually, the stars are all accomplished, talented actresses, but their scenes together amount to less than the sum of their parts, and none of them is doing her best work here. There should be more stories focused on characters of this age, and more showcases for late-career actresses, but all Book Club does is prove how disappointingly slim choices in those areas really are.