Review: Book Club

In a time when going to the movies is considered by many an endeavor fraught with peril, the choices made by Japanese distributors and movie houses invite extra scrutiny. Here we have a frivolous American romantic comedy originally released in 2018 starring three of the 70s most reliable Hollywood female actors and a fourth who mainly made her mark in the 80s, thus appealing to a certain layer of Japanese boomers who might still want to see a film in a real theater, but I’m probably overthinking the matter. Most likely, the distributor bought the film more than a year ago and has just been trying to get it into a venue somewhere, and thus feels lucky they can actually get a theatrical slot in order to boost the inevitable VOD release, which is probably only weeks away.

That said, the movie has its predictable but nonetheless peculiar charms, all of which are contained in the aforementioned casting of screen vets long in the tooth. In fact, it’s easy to get the impression that director/co-writer Bill Holderman didn’t actually develop his script until he knew which actors would be on board, because the characters are suspiciously tied to their players’ public images, which, of course, are mostly shaped by the roles they are known for in the past. Diane Keaton plays a cognate of herself who is conveniently named Diane, a recently widowed septuagenarian who wouldn’t mind getting back in the dating game but for her daughters’ queasy objections. Jane Fonda’s Vivian is a riff on Fonda’s Grace & Frankie character’s horny rich senior citizen, who may have lost her mojo in bed (though God knows she tries) but can still get it up for business. Candice Bergen takes the long view on the prim young woman she played in Carnal Knowledge, but for laughs this time. She is Sharon, a long-divorced judge who hasn’t had sex in 18 years and is perfectly OK with that. The outlier, Mary Steenburgen, seems to have been cast only because Jill Clayburgh is dead. Of the four central women, her Carol is the only one with a living husband (Craig T. Nelson), albeit one who isn’t interested in whoopie any more. 

The title refers to an excuse for getting all these characters together in one place where they talk not so much about the novels they’re reading but rather about their own thwarted dreams and hopes while under the influence of wine, which is the fifth long-toothed character in the story and the only one that seems to be in every scene. I approve if only because the alcoholism on display is never demonized but simply presented as a side effect of the privilege these people enjoy as women who had to navigate the shoals of unreliable men to achieve that privilege. The impetus for the late sexual soul-searching is E.L. James’ racy bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that the quartet initially pooh-pooh for its gratuitous salaciousness but nevertheless devour more readily than anything since Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying when it first came out, just so you can understand how long this book club has been operating. 

The subplots that show these women taking a chance on post-menopausal sexual intrigue (well, except for Vivian, who has been getting it all along, albeit without any kind of satisfying emotional investment) are much less interesting than the book club sessions themselves, which entertain through a combination of frank discourse on the indignities of aging and the actors’ skill at turning their respective screen iconographies into a compelling ensemble. In contrast, the veteran male actors (Andy Garcia, Richard Dreyfuss, Don Johnson) seem stranded on the reef of cliches endemic to this kind of movie. Holderman knew exactly what would appeal to the audience and focused on that, and, in a way, it’s nice to see a filmmaker go with what so obviously works, even if nothing about the end result has anything to do with real life.

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Book Club home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2018 Bookclub for Cats LLC

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