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‘Book Club’ fails to leave a mark

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It isn’t easy getting old in Hollywood. Too often, stars flail against the notion of age, desperately trying to stave off the inevitability of time. Aging gracefully isn’t something that most actors have the luxury of doing.

It’s particularly bad for women; there just isn’t a lot of space carved out of the cinematic firmament for actresses of a certain age. So when an opportunity arises – an opportunity for a collection of exceptionally talented women to shine - all you can do is cross your fingers and hope for the best.

At the very least, hope for better than “Book Club.”

This movie – directed by first-timer Bill Holderman from a screenplay he co-wrote with fellow rookie Erin Simms – is disjointed and clunky. Despite a phenomenal cast – anchored by the top-shelf quartet of Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen and featuring a wealth of supporting talent besides – the film collapses into rom-com cliché, struggling to come up with anything to say that merits the tremendous talent recruited to say it.

Four lifelong friends have been in a book club for 40 years. Vivian (Fonda) is a sexually voracious hotel owner who has never been in a serious long-term relationship since rejecting a proposal in her youth. Sharon (Bergen) is a federal judge who hasn’t connected with anyone romantically since her divorce nearly 20 years earlier. Carol (Steenburgen) is a chef with her own New York restaurant who is also struggling with the inert nature of her marriage. Diane (Keaton) is a widow dealing with her two daughters trying to get her to move to Arizona just a year after the passing of her husband.

Things start to get upended when the women select a racier book to discuss as part of the year’s overarching theme (books that were made into movies). They pick up “Fifty Shades of Grey” and suddenly, their lives start to grow a little more complicated.

Vivian’s path crosses with Arthur (Don Johnson, “Brawl in Cell Block 99”) - the man whose proposal she rejected those many years ago – and finds herself drawn to him all over again. Sharon gets news about her ex-husband Tom’s (Ed Begley Jr., “Lucky”) engagement and decides to take to the internet to start dating again. Carol begins searching for a way to reignite the sexual spark between herself and her husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson, “Gold”). And Diane, while taking a trip to visit her daughters Jill (Alicia Silverstone, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) and Adrienne (Katie Aselton, “Fun Mom Dinner”), meets an attractive new friend named Mitchell (Andy Garcia, “Geostorm”).

Each of the women is left to make choices with regards to how they want things to play out going forward. And as they make their way through all three books in the “Fifty Shades” trilogy, their paths follow a similar arc to that traced by the novels – and every one of them needs to determine just what it is that they want from their own personal happy ending.

“Book Club” isn’t a great movie. The pacing moves in fits and starts and features more than a few awkward leaps. It offers up a mélange of sloppy rom-com tropes that we’re supposed to find fresh solely because there are older women trapped in their midst. The dialogue comes off as choppy and even disjointed at times.

However, it should have been MUCH worse. The inexperience inherent to the writing and the direction is compensated for considerably courtesy of the immense talents of the cast. It’s a classic situation of an ensemble elevating the material to a level that it frankly has no right reaching.

Obviously, it starts with the four women at the center of the film. Keaton and her journey feels like the story’s emotional core; few people can play harried with as much humor and heart as she brings to the table. Fonda’s Vivian walks the line between being sex-positive and using physical intimacy as a (poor) substitute for the emotional kind. Steenburgen is sweet and sly in equal measure, treating the complicated marital dynamic in a way that feels candid and honest. Bergen is wonderful, presenting a hardened career woman who nevertheless has cracks of vulnerability in the veneer.

The men do some great work as well. Garcia is probably the highlight, projecting easy cool. Johnson and Nelson lend surprising depth to underbaked characters. Begley is solid. Familiar faces pop up for short moments – old pros like Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn have some good scenes. And Silverstone and Aselton are the very picture of dutiful daughters despite not being given a whole lot with which to work.

Again, “Book Club” is a film with all manner of flaws; in too many ways, it flat-out does not work. And that’s a real shame – it feels as though this high-quality cast is largely squandered. That the movie succeeds at all is a testament to that across-the-board talent; honestly, one could say that it’s the best movie to be inspired by the work of E.L. James.

But man – imagine what this cast could do with a script and director that were, you know … good. Still, the mere fact that “Book Club” exists at all should be considered a win.

[2 out of 5]

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