Bill Holderman (2018)
Back in 2011, John Madden gave us The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a brilliant sleeper of a movie that presented aging stars like Maggie Smith and Judy Dench, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkerson in what amounted to a romantic comedy for senior citizens. Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson had already paved the way for such a story with Last Chance Harvey in 2008. Post-Marigold, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones tried to spice up a foundering marriage in 2012’s Hope Springs. What I’m trying to imply here is that there is in fact a particular sub-genre of Romantic Comedy that involves senior citizens and that portrays their lives with insight and sensibility. Book Club, helmed by first-time director Bill Holderman, who also wrote the screenplay along with co-producer Erin Simms, aims to be part of that trend. It was Simms’ first screenplay; Holderman had previously written the screenplay for A Walk in the Woods in 2015. That story was based on a Bill Bryson book. The screenplay for Book Club is original, though it seems to have been at least partly inspired by E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, or at least by Holderman and Simms’ waggish prank of sending the James books to their respective mothers for Mothers’ Day, and then imagining what might happen if those women got together to talk about them in a book club.
Let’s step back and analyze this for a minute: the story comes not from anybody’s actual experience but from two people imagining what other people thirty years their seniors might do in their most intimate moments. I’m not saying that somebody at, say, 42 is not capable of imagining what the emotions and reactions of a much older person might be in certain situations—Shakespeare, after all, was that age when he wrote King Lear. Ernest Thompson was only 28 when he wrote On Golden Pond. But those and similar sensitively-written works were clearly the result of careful observation and empathetic consideration of characters of a certain age. Marigold Hotel, by the way, was written by 42-year-old Ol Parker, but adapted from the novel These Foolish Things, written by 56-year old novelist Deborah Moggach. I can’t help but think that Holderman and Simms would have done better if they’d had a similar book to adapt. What we have in Book Clubis essentially that one idea, the kernel of a plot that might be expected in a half-hour TV sit-com (and not a cutting-edge one), expanded into a two-hour film. Only BookClub has one thing that CBS sit-com doesn’t have: a star-studded cast.
Jane Fonda has seven Oscar nominations, and has won two of them, plus an Emmy and seven Golden Globe awards. Candice Bergen has five prime time Emmy awards, two Golden Globes and one Oscar nomination. Diane Keaton has one Oscar win in four nominations, two Golden Globes in nine nominations, and one Emmy nomination. Arkansas native Mary Steenburgen has one Oscar, one Golden Globe (in three nominations), and has been nominated for an Emmy as well. So if my math is correct, these women have four Oscars, twelve Golden Globes, and six Emmys among the four of them. That’s a lot of hardware. And what else do they have in common? They agreed to be in this movie.
That in itself is certainly understandable. Women in Hollywood don’t have a lot of interesting roles to pick from after they are beyond the typical leading lady age. Sure, Meryl Streep has been able to find challenging roles worthy of her talent, and Kathryn Hepburn was able to command such roles before her, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. If Fonda, Bergen, Keaton and Steenburgen want to work, then they are going to take roles in films like this and they’re going to lift such scripts from mediocrity, and provide the fans (who will come to see the movie only because they are in it) with a few memorable moments if at all possible. And that’s what happens here.
The gist of the film’s story is this: four quite different women, each very successful in her own way and all of them pretty well-off financially, have been close friends for 40 years, and meet monthly for a book club, taking turns choosing the title to be read for each meeting. It’s an obvious premise to get them all together for a lot of wine and freewheeling discussion, and that’s where things take off. As an aside, it’s interesting note that the “40 years ago we were BFF” scenario implies that the four women are about the same age, when in fact there are 16 years difference between the oldest (Fonda) and the youngest (Steenburgen) in this quartet, but that just underscores the fact that in Hollywood, once you are a woman over a certain age, you’re lumped in with everybody else in terms of the kind of role you can play. But I digress.
Sharon (Bergen) is a tough federal judge who seems relatively content with her cat and with her anger and obsession over her ex-husband (Ed Begley Jr.), who’s decided to get married again—to a much younger woman—after 18 years of divorce. Diane (Keaton) is a recent widow whose two grown daughters are pressuring her to move out of her big, fancy house and into a basement in one of the daughter’s houses, fearful that she might fall or forget how to drive or some such thing. Carol (Steenburgen) is a very successful chef, who, after 35 years is in a marriage that has lost any spark it may have had for her and her distant, recently-retired husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), who gives her earplugs as an anniversary gift. And Vivian (Fonda) is a filthy-rich hotelier who has never been married but has engaged in casual affairs for decades because of a whopping fear of committing to a relationship that might hurt her.
Vivian, as you might expect, is the one who brings Fifty Shades of Greyto the book club, and the novel becomes a catalyst that stirs each of the women to a reawakened sexuality. Sharon joins an online dating club that nets her dates with the charming and likeable George (Richard Dreyfuss) as well as the not-so-much Dr. Derek (Wallace Shawn). Diane serendipitously meets pilot and incredibly wealthy Mitchell (Andy Garcia) and has to try to balance him and her overprotective daughters. Vivian runs into her old college flame from four decades past, Arthur (Don Johnson in a clever bit of casting, since his daughter stars in the Fifty Shades of Grey movies), and has to decide whether to break her own long-standing rule (“I don’t sleep with people I like—I gave that up in the Nineties”). And Carol—well, if her own charms can’t wake her husband up she’ll try dropping a double-dose of Viagra in his beer (not a spoiler—it was in the trailer). Crazy high jinx ensue, most of which you will find pretty predictable.
But there is enough here for each woman to have some kind of character arc, and each of them has her own sort of breakthrough by the end. The men in the story don’t come off as well. Dreyfuss is woefully underused—his appearance is little more than a cameo, which is too bad, because he is the most likeable of them all. Garcia and Johnson do little more than provide a kind of bland Other against whom Fonda and Keaton can define themselves (of course, that’s a role women have played in movies since their inception). Nelson gets the role with the most meat, and one that is ultimately sympathetic, though he does have to endure the obligatory and ultimately demeaning Viagra jokes. Oh, those jokes are pretty funny, I’m sure, to a 35-year-old writer or director, but wait another 35 years and see how funny they are then. I keep thinking of Fonda’s father Henry’s line in On Golden Pond: “You think it’s funny being old? My whole goddam body’s fallin’ apart. Sometimes I can’t even go to the bathroom when I want to.”
Which leads me to a few other things that bothered me about the movie. People between 65 and 80, which is what these women are, are especially concerned with health care and with living on a fixed income—but everybody in this movie has got so much money it doesn’t matter. You’d think regular people might have less ability to relate to the characters in that case, but fortunately the four stars are relatable largely because of our prior familiarity with them. Anyway, it’s a comedy, so let’s transcend the issues of the real world. But secondly, isn’t it a little anachronistic in today’s climate to suggest that these four very successful and mature women really are just not going to be happy unless they have a man?
I’m giving this two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson, which is a gift, but I have to give it something for putting these four women on the screen together.
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