Book Club is more of an afternoon than a movie. It’s warm and a little sleepy, and if you nodded off here and there, well, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. It would go best with a big blanket and a glass of wine. This is a compliment.
I can see where you’d think Book Club doesn’t deserve the compliment, at least looking at it from the outside. The movie is undeniably cheesy. It frequently uses fake-looking backdrops and rear projection to simulate the effect of driving a car or flying a plane. Whatever expenses the movie had to spare were mostly spent on its (admittedly terrific and stacked) cast, leaving less for the design of the film than you might expect for a movie sharing a playground with Nancy Meyers, she of Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated.
What’s more, director Bill Holderman (who also co-wrote the charming script with Erin Simms) pretty much just points his camera at the actors and lets them talk. If you’re looking for a movie with any visual flair at all, Book Club isn’t really for you.
But the movie is sneakily great, too. Holderman and Simms’s screenplay is thoughtful and surprisingly moving in places, especially when you consider that its base premise is “a book club of women in their later years decide to read Fifty Shades of Grey.” (The premise might seem a little dated, but the movie presents it as a sort of “last resort” for the book club, which helps it slide by your defenses.)
And when the central four women are played by Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen — and the rest of the cast is stuffed with ringers — well, it doesn’t matter if the camerawork isn’t especially vibrant.
What Book Club understands that movies with much bigger budgets do not
The reason Book Club works is because of how completely Holderman understands that the movie is best served by staying out of the way of his cast. I’ve seen so many ensemble movies in the past decade that don’t seem to understand that the way to build an ensemble is to put the actors in the same frame and let them act together. So many of these movies are shot in close-ups on the actors’ faces, which might help them emote on an individual level but does little to underline connections between them.
But it’s different when Holderman and his cast get to one of the handful of meetings with the full book club that pepper the movie. Those scenes always sing because the director and actors work the connections among the various players, building relationships in the precious little time they have. Book Club is structured so that each of the four women has her own storyline, involving her own search for sexual and romantic gratification. Holderman gets that the best way to enhance their chemistry is to make the most of the scenes featuring all the characters.
And he’ll put them in two-shots or wide shots featuring the whole ensemble, or he’ll have the actors move around and into frame with each other to facilitate building those relationships. It might all feel a little like a filmed stage play (and it’s not hard to imagine the stage play version of this very story, which would perform like gangbusters at the dinner theaters of our great nation), but that’s probably the best approach to making this movie work.
Ultimately, Book Club is a little like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — we need to be invested in the four individual stars and their relationship as a group for the movie to work. And while the movie is welcome for its forthright insistence that the sexual gratification of women over 40 is a worthy subject to tell stories about, the individual stories within the film aren’t wildly different from standard romance fodder.
There’s the widow who’s just starting to date again, the woman who can’t get over her ex-husband even though she never really loved him, the woman who never married and has a great lost love, and the wife who feels neglected by her husband now that he’s older and a little embarrassed about sexual performance issues. These are all good stories, and well acted, but original they are not.
Book Club transcends the banality of those stories, though, because it takes these women’s lives so seriously. It is not a joke that they realize they might have missed out on some great sex from reading 50 Shades of Grey, as it would be in so many other movies. Here, it’s a call to arms.
Book Club is in no way perfect, but I had a blast with it all the same. When the movie reached its several preordained climaxes — in which our heroes find what they’ve been looking for all along — I found myself moved.
I would like to rent out a massive theater and invite the mothers of everybody I know to sit and watch this movie with me. I’ll provide the blankets and wine, and if we start to doze off, I hope we wake up for the big finish, when Mary Steenburgen tap-dances to a wholly unexpected schlock ballad, because it’s great.
Book Club opens in theaters Friday, May 18. Take any mother you can find, not necessarily your own.
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