I want to live in a world where the summer’s high-profile sex comedy stars Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen. In this world, Keaton’s love interest would be played by Andy Garcia, who would be a pilot, and she would accidentally place her hand on his crotch at least twice the first time they meet. The women’s daughters would randomly be played by people like Alicia Silverstone. Maybe they would all read Fifty Shades of Grey as part of their usually high-minded book club, and then they would all go sex mad, and there would be double entendres about “moisture,” and they would drink huge volumes of white wine. All the women would eventually get laid, in some cases for the first time in years. Maybe there’d even be weird product placement from Bumble or something.
That we actually do live in this world, at least for one summer, is so delightful that I have to wonder: Does it matter if the movie that offers these gifts, Book Club, is any good? It’s a question that hounded me increasingly as the movie all but abandons its premise and becomes limper than the penis of the impotent husband played by Craig T. Nelson. Then again, for much of its running time, Book Club is basically impossible to resist, so who am I to complain? Everyone who goes to this movie will leave satisfied, mostly just because it exists.
Shrewd observers of the genre will note the movie wisely adopts a Sex and the City cast structure in its four leads: There’s the successful, slutty, proudly unattached friend (Fonda), the wholesome if surprisingly horny friend (Steenburgen), the high-powered legal professional with a cat named Ginsburg friend (Bergen), and the inevitable Carrie friend (Diane Keaton), who here is widowed and facing down a pair of domineering daughters (Silverstone and Katie Aselton). Together the women have gathered monthly for a book club for 40 years, where, as the movie opens, they are somehow just now reading Wild. In a cry for a little excitement, one fatefully suggests Fifty Shades of Grey as their next title. The snobs grimace. “50 million people can’t be wrong,” the agitator reasons. Before long, the women have torn through the first book and graduated to the full trilogy, and its lessons have inspired countless innuendos and at least one romp in the back of a car with Richard Dreyfuss.
Again, your mind may wander. These women have been doing a book club for 40 years. That’s almost 500 books! Have they never read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Or, like, Jackie Collins? It’s as if E. L. James taught them there are sex books. But at first, Book Club is breezy enough—and sometimes, genuinely raunchy enough—to push through the limitations of its premise. The jokes, from the screenplay by newcomers Erin Simms and Bill Holderman (who also directed), are delivered reliably and with occasional flair, and the movie balances its marquee stars and many cameos deftly. Wish-fulfillment sequences deliver dreamy single-engine flights over Arizona rock formations, tender poolside sex, and solid-looking hors d’oeuvres. The wine flows endlessly, and the four actresses at the film’s core seem to be having a great time. What’s not to love?
Well, for one thing, as the movie’s bawdy energy subsides and its more conventional rom-com instincts kick in, you may notice the conflicts rest almost entirely on men and the obstacles that keep these women from being with them. Nothing else makes them happy, not really. This is true even for a federal judge, who is too busy fiddling with her Bumble account to see lawyers in her chambers. You may also notice that the book club is all but forgotten when it’s no longer convenient to the plot, leaving the story with little to anchor it. You may care very little if any of the meandering romantic subplots are actually resolved, even as the movie labors very hard to resolve them. The film essentially runs out of energy about an hour in, then continues for another 44 minutes.
Even so, maybe the thought of Diane Keaton and Andy Garcia’s characters drifting on pool inflatables somewhere in the Arizona desert for the rest of their lives is good enough for you. Maybe Candice Bergen and Jane Fonda cracking jokes about boobs and bondage is enough for you. Maybe the goat-cheese–stuffed tomatoes are enough for you. It all nearly was for me. Despite my public affection for the Fifty Shades movies, I realized watching Book Club that I, too, had never actually opened one of the books. So I decided to join the ladies. Before long, I was 80 pages deep and coming across lines such as this:
He turns to look at me. “You’re biting your lip.” His voice is husky, and he’s eyeing me speculatively. “Sorry.” “Don’t apologize. It’s just that I want to bite it too, hard.”
I laughed a little, and then remembered a similar scene from the movie in which Keaton’s character laughs while reading the book as well, as if she can’t decide whether to be embarrassed or turned on. Book Club may in the end be little more than an excuse for a senior sex comedy, and a somewhat sleepy one at that, but at least it understands the weird energy of enjoying something you know you shouldn’t.