When Book Club was announced last year, the premise felt like it had to be a joke. The film, which follows four women of a certain age who experience sexual reawakenings after reading Fifty Shades of Grey for their book club, felt like the kind of thing whose reason to exist began and ended with its log line. Most of us probably learned of its existence during the trailers before Fifty Shades Freed. Oh, we would certainly all go see it, but not without acknowledging that we were living with an industry in which nothing gets green-lit unless it is a wink or nod at a one-time trending topic. The jokes would seem to write themselves, and be fully dependent on that preexisting property, a feature-length reaction GIF.
But as it turns out, Book Club is only tangentially “about” the Fifty Shades trilogy, and that’s what makes it so smart. It uses E.L. James’s notoriously silly BDSM saga as shorthand for a kind of romantic adventurousness, but the four leads all quickly pick up the beat and explore that idea on their own, outside the limited realm of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. They never get around to picking up any chains or whips, but at least one of them creates a Bumble account.
The background, narrated by Diane Keaton (“Diane”) over an Apple slideshow of gloriously Photoshopped old snapshots, tells the story of the titular Book Club. Their inaugural meeting in the ’70s was around Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (i.e., there’s a history of spiciness here) and they’ve been meeting without fail since then, through all the ups and downs of love, careers, and family. Sharon (Candice Bergen) is a judge who’s been divorced from her dip of an ex-husband for 16 years and never dated since; Vivian (Jane Fonda) is a high-powered hotelier who has voraciously played the field her whole life; Carol (the irresistibly charming Mary Steenburgen) is a successful chef whose multi-decade marriage has turned stale after her husband’s retirement.
And as for Diane? Ha-you’ll-see. She was recently widowed, and her adult children (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton), fearing for their elderly mother rattling around all by herself in her sprawling Santa Monica home, are begging her to sell the house and move into their basement in Arizona. (The sets, it should go without saying, are all heavily indebted to the Nancy Meyers school of aspirational interiors.) During a flight to visit them in Phoenix, blissed out on anti-anxiety meds and toting Anastasia’s misadventures in her carry-on, she meets a handsome stranger played by a casually seductive Andy Garcia. She’s all nervous, Keatonian giggles as she lies about what she’s reading; he watches her with bemused adoration. It’s a shockingly loose, unpolished meet-cute, Garcia tempering Keaton’s shtick to lovely effect.
Her friends, meanwhile, are sparked to take the reins of the autumn of their love lives in their own ways. Sharon decides to join Bumble, but she’s adorably rusty (“Thank you for your kind note,” she responds to one interested suitor). Still, she manages to land a date with Richard Dreyfuss, which goes much better than expected; and another with Wallace Shawn, which does not, in hilarious fashion. Vivian reunites with the one guy she maybe-kinda ever had real feelings for, a music producer played by Don Johnson (father of Dakota, closing the whole 50SOG circle). There’s a maturity and warmth to director Bill Holderman and Erin Simms’s script, which respects these ladies and understands that they’ve got a wealth of life experience that doesn’t exactly fit into one rom-com. One of Keaton’s later conversations with Garcia is surprisingly frank about her late husband, and it caught me off guard in the best way.
But Steenburgen’s story line might just be the heart of the film. As she tries to find the spark in her marriage to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), the script tackles the complexity of very long-term relationships with nuance and the occasional slapstick boner sequence. Carol’s doing everything she can to keep things interesting, and in any other movie he’d eventually succumb and decide that ballroom dancing is his key to rediscovering his passion. But Book Club is smarter than that, and when Carol and Bruce eventually come to an understanding — in front of an audience at a charity dinner, because it’s still that kind of movie, after all — I was delighted to be so moved. The same ultimately goes for the entire film.