Book Club is Sex and the City exploring ‘the next chapter’

For a movie titled Book Club, there aren’t many scenes dedicated to characters holding book club sessions, but the title is hardly the point in this Sex And The City-esque rom-com for the older-mom demographic.

The infamously un-sexy mainstream erotica book series Fifty Shades of Grey is a convenient pop-culture reference point so that the film’s four women characters — adorable, recently widowed Diane (Diane Keaton), sex-obsessed entrepreneur Vivian (Jane Fonda), divorced, married-to-her-job Sharon (Candice Bergen), and sexually frustrated housewife Carol (Mary Steenburgen) — can bond and talk about their sex lives.

In the case of Sharon, her 18-year abstinence is an easy punchline for her friends (one describes Sharon’s vagina as “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” one of the better jokes in the film). Bergen brings an earnest, comedic charisma to an otherwise underwritten role as she fumbles around online dating service Bumble — this includes a hilarious scene in which she accidentally posts a profile pic of her mortified, skin-mask-clad face. Her job as a judge has left little time for romance, though watching her son get engaged and her ex-husband Tom (Ed Begley, Jr.) canoodle with a much-younger fiancée has made Sharon more interested in finding a new mate.

The most obvious Sex And The City stand-in character is Vivian, clearly based on Kim Cattrall’s Samantha. Fonda’s leopard-print-wearing icy temptress is refreshing to see on-screen — if only because the number of positive depictions of post-menopausal female sexuality can be counted on one hand. However, the basis of her character is as stereotyped as Samantha’s: a woman turns down love (she said no to a wedding proposal 40 years ago, only to recently start casually dating the same guy, Arthur, played by Don Johnson) to focus on career ambitions.  This may have been accurate for women of previous eras, certainly, but perhaps it’s a depiction that could use more nuance. That Arthur eventually makes her emotionally vulnerable by doing her favourite thing in the world — arm tickling, because she’s “a woman of simple pleasures” — demonstrates the lack of character development in Book Club.

Diane is possibly the most fleshed-out character of the club. She meets a handsome, self-assured and wealthy pilot, Mitchell (Andy Garcia), who is very good to her. Keaton’s nervous energy is well-buoyed by Garcia’s serene charm and their scenes are the most wonderful to dream-watch. But Diane’s dynamic with her two overprotective daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton), who want to move their aging mama to their basement like the helpless senio they seem to think she is, dampens her subplot into something silly, especially when the two worlds collide.

Steenburgen’s Carol gets the least characterization of the bunch. Her dwindling dynamic with recently retired husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) is structured around a real relationship issue that is, like every other conflict in the film, quickly and neatly resolved. His lack of sexual desire and sudden interest in his dusty motorcycle has him casually firing off one unwitting sexual innuendo after another (“slap some wax on that saddle”) and enduring several Viagra mishaps in the hands of Carol.

Book Club would have been better as a mini-series, where emotional intelligence and more witty banter could engage in the kind of narrative foreplay that makes for a genuinely satisfying, interesting and nuanced dramedy. There is an appetite for the kinds of stories Book Club wants to tell — which is why Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, which co-stars Fonda, is doing so well — and there’s no reason why we can’t have more comedies starring hot, confident, self-actualized 65-plus-year-old women exploring the “next chapter” of their lives, like the film’s tagline boasts.

Originally published in National Post (May 17, 2018).