Jane Fonda said recently that "Book Club" was the most fun she's ever had making a movie. She was ostensibly talking about getting to know her castmates — namely Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen — but may also have been referring to the wine. There is lots and lots of fine wine in "Book Club" — in fact, it seems like nobody's allowed to have a conversation after 4 p.m. without an oversized glass of Chardonnay.
And come to think of it, that's not a bad idea for the viewer as well. If you have access to wine while you're seeing this film, go for it — it'll smooth out the rough edges. "Book Club" has a script that's often so heavy on the corn — make that corn syrup — that it strains credulity and leaves you groaning. But then, darn it, suddenly it makes you tearful, with an unexpectedly genuine moment, or laugh out loud. It's a credit to the cast, and the cast only — how many decades of top-level acting experience do we have here? All four women are fun, but allow us a special shoutout to the wonderfully witty presence of Bergen, who makes something worthwhile of every line she's given.
Vivian, Diane, Sharon and Carol are old friends, with a book club that's been meeting for 40 years. They're all in a different sort of rut (what they share is being white, older and well-off.) Vivian (Fonda) is a steely, auburn-haired vision of corporate success, a hotel owner with plenty of spice in her life — but only in the afternoons, no strings attached. Diane (Keaton) is a widow, with adult daughters who worry about her to an absurd degree, and no love life. Carol (Steenburgen) is comfortably married, but her husband is more interested in lubing up and riding his old motorbikes (cue the eye-rolling sex-bike puns) than in his marriage. As for Sharon (Bergen), she's a federal judge, and defiantly single. "I haven't had sex since my divorce and it's been the happiest 18 years of my life," she quips drily, as only Bergen can.
For their next book choice, Vivian decides something different is needed — "Fifty Shades of Grey." (Yes, they're still trying to make a good movie from it.) Of course the other women protest, but soon they're reading and giggling.
Somehow, the book causes an immediate earthquake in each woman's life (talk about product placement). For Carol, it's the realization that her marriage to Bruce (an amusing Craig T. Nelson) desperately needs spark. For Vivian, it's the uncomfortable realization that a meetup with a handsome old flame, Arthur, might actually open up her well-protected heart. (In perhaps the movie's wittiest joke, Arthur is played by Don Johnson, father of Dakota, who of course played Anastasia Steele in You-Know-What.)
For Sharon, it's about summoning the courage to launch herself into the jungle of online dating. And for Diane, who's afraid to fly, the romantic challenge comes from — who'd have thunk it? — a sexy pilot named Mitchell (Andy Garcia), who seeks to shake her from a boring life in her daughter's basement bedroom.
The intersecting storylines follow entertaining and sometimes very silly paths. Among the more ridiculous elements in the script, by director Bill Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms: the extent to which Diane's adult daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton, in thankless parts) treat her like a child, unable to care for herself. This is a fit, active, witty woman who looks like Diane Keaton! And why does Diane stand for it? Among the sadder elements is Carol's story; she deserves a lot better than slipping Viagra into her husband's beer and squeezing into her old waitress uniform to seduce him.
Besides, what's so wonderful about the distracted Bruce anyway? Or the sweet but too-calm Mitchell, or charming yet boring Arthur? If there's a downside to having four such appealing female stars, it's that it makes the male characters seem utterly pointless.
Well, except for one thing. One major thing.
So, if you're in the mood, pour yourself a nice cold white, sit back, and watch these four women get what they want. You could do worse.
"Book Club," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America "for sex-related material throughout, and for language." Running time: 104 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.