There aren’t many movies made for mature audiences, especially these days, it’s safe to say. Films are oftentimes centered on youth: the struggles of young living, the perils of coming of age, the loss of innocence, the romanticism of young love and, sometimes, young death. When movies are made about (and for) older audiences — predominately those 50 or older — they’re centered around older people coming to terms with their final years, going on exotic trips or, more often than not, trying to reconnect with their lost youth. There aren’t many movies about older people simply living older lives; it’s hard to find cinema centered around upper-middle-aged individuals or senior citizens in their everyday existence. That’s where Book Club had the potential to succeed. A nice vehicle for Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen and Jane Fonda, along with Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, and Craig T. Nelson, Book Club doesn’t have a single cast member below the age of 60 at the forefront. It’s a movie for older audiences, with older audiences at the center. And that’s deeply refreshing. Or, at least, it would be — if Book Club were any good at all.
Unfortunately, Book Club is a struggle to sit through. It’s a bland, half-hearted and disappointingly uninspired sex comedy for the aged, with tepid gags, trite story beats and a strange fear of on-screen sexuality throughout, despite its worthwhile effort to showcase older people having sexual relationships in a non-judgmental way. Co-writer and first-time director Bill Holderman makes a poorly paced, poorly conceived debut, with little to warrant his wealth of on-screen talent. What should be a celebration for these acclaimed older actors is, instead, an embarrassment. Lacking wit and wisdom, Book Club won’t win any new members — particularly if they decide to host another meeting.
For 30 years, Vivian (Fonda), Diane (Keaton), Sharon (Bergen) and Carol (Steenburgen) have gathered together for their book club. It’s basically the only thing in their lives that has stayed consistent throughout the decades. Husbands have died, marriages have lost their sex appeal and relationships have come-and-gone. Only through their bond together have these four women stayed strong. But with Diane’s daughters pressuring their mom to move in with them in Arizona, even the group might fall apart. That’s when things start to shake up a bit inside the familiar Book Club. Vivian decides to spice up the reading assignments by throwing EL James’ best-selling Fifty Shades of Grey into the mix, and by doing so, each member of the book club finds themselves re-examining their lives — specifically, their sex lives — in the process.
The premise on its own holds potential. It’s basically Sex and the City for an audience closer to the age of The Golden Girls, and in its final execution, it feels just as sitcom-friendly. The biggest problem with Book Club is that it’s either too clean or too dirty. The PG-13 comedy is too frank in its sex talk to make you want to see it with your grandparents, but it’s never honest enough about older sexual relationships to feel vital or worthwhile. It’s not entirely clear if they’re trying to play it safe or have a bit of an edge, but the movie never finds a straight line. While it’s nice to have characters above their 50s act like actual sexual beings, Book Club never explores that territory in any worthwhile way. Particularly as it continues on, the storylines become more regressive and tired, and the actors involved can only do so much under a flimsy script.
Additionally, beyond the occasionally good visual gag, Book Club never even takes advantage of making fun of the X-rated smut that inspired its existence. It’s not even clear if the filmmakers have read the Fifty Shades books. Most of the information presented in Book Club can be gleaned from either the movies or a quick search on Wikipedia. And anything that’s presented is quickly censored, as they’re cautious to keep the PG-13 rating they’ve been given. It’s a bizarre mix of sensibilities, with the movie never comfortably figuring out its comedic approach. Also, while Don Johnson is never seen reading the book or mentioning it, it’s still kinda weird that he’s in a movie about characters enjoying the promiscuous pleasures of the franchise that made his daughter, Dakota Johnson, into a superstar. But hey, maybe that’s just me?
If audiences simply want to indulge in the pleasure of seeing its multi-Oscar winning ensemble together, those delights are present but often fleeting. The cast is rarely seen together, often focused on different subplots that hold little engagement, enjoyment or investment. Typically, only Candice Bergen is given anything entertaining to do, and she’s sadly the cast member seen the least throughout this comedy. It’s a shame because Book Club had the potential to present older, mature audiences with a sex comedy they can relate to and enjoy. Instead, Book Club is often as underdeveloped and immature as the characters seen in the movie’s stiff summer competition.
Ultimately, it’s clear that Fifty Shades of Grey has now inspired four bad movies. What a pity.