Book Club is a strained af­fair, de­spite stel­lar cast

Fonda, Ber­gen, Keaton and Steen­bur­gen can’t save weirdly off-key movie

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - Arts & Life - MICK LASALLE

There is a built-in plea­sure in see­ing Diane Keaton, Candice Ber­gen, Jane Fonda and Mary Steen­bur­gen in the same movie. We’re used to them. We like them. We like be­ing around them — but not so much that we can’t no­tice that “Book Club’’ is a pretty strained af­fair, not es­pe­cially funny and weirdly off key.

It’s the story of four best friends from school days, who’ve been part of a monthly book club since back when “Fear of Fly­ing’’ was a best­seller. One day, one of the ladies springs “Fifty Shades of Grey’’ on her friends. That gets the ball rolling: the women start think­ing about sexual ad­ven­tures that they missed out on and be­gin try­ing to make up for lost time.

Though the ages of the women are never stated, the movie strongly im­plies that the women are roughly the same age, and they’re prob­a­bly in their mid-60s.

But only Mary Steen­bur­gen, who is 65, is in that zone.

Ber­gen and Keaton are 72, and Fonda is 80. Although love and ro­mance are pos­si­ble at any age, there are dif­fer­ences be­tween be­ing in one’s 60s, 70s and 80s. The movie glosses over these dif­fer­ences.

On the other hand, this may just be a movie de­signed for a par­tic­u­lar de­mo­graphic that has been mostly ig­nored — women over 70.

Don John­son shows up, charm­ing and just crazy about Fonda. Andy Gar­cia takes one look at Diane Keaton and seems to fall in love im­me­di­ately.

And by the way, these men are not only good-look­ing and con­sid­er­ably younger, but they’re rich! Movies that cater to male fan­tasies are made ev­ery week. We don’t even no­tice them — they’re just called movies. So “Book Club’’ may serve a pur­pose.

The screen­play places the women in dif­fer­ent places in life. Keaton plays a re­cent widow — though the power of that is un­der­cut by her men­tion­ing, in pass­ing, that she wasn’t all that crazy about the dead hus­band, any­way. Ber­gen is a fed­eral judge, whose sex life is so nonex­is­tent that, at one point, her friends use the ti­tle of a Werner Her­zog movie to re­fer to her pri­vate parts. You have two sec­onds to guess which Her­zog movie ... Give up? “Cave of For­got­ten Dreams.’’

Mean­while, Fonda is a fab­u­lously wealthy ho­tel owner with a suc­ces­sion of lovers but no true love. Steen­bur­gen plays a long­time mar­ried woman be­com­ing con­cerned about her hus­band (Craig T. Nelson). Newly re­tired, his de­sire to have sex seems to have evap­o­rated the day he stopped work­ing. Now he just mopes around the garage, tin­ker­ing with an old car.

The movie’s dif­fer­ent threads vary in qual­ity and in­ter­est. The Keaton and Fonda story lines suf­fer from fake, con­cocted ar­gu­ments with their re­spec­tive lovers — the bane of all bad ro­man­tic come­dies, and this time we get it dou­ble. But the mar­riage story, with Steen­bur­gen and Nelson, is a sen­si­tive look at a cou­ple get­ting older and it con­tains the movie’s fun­ni­est bit (in­volv­ing Vi­a­gra slipped into a beer). And Ber­gen, who plays the most with­drawn of the ladies, does some­thing in­ter­est­ing with the judge, sug­gest­ing a heal­ing and an awak­en­ing.

“Book Club’’ isn’t a se­ri­ous movie and wasn’t meant to be — it’s just a di­ver­sion, but it’s only mildly di­vert­ing. For a more se­ri­ous take on the same sub­ject, see “I’ll See You in Dreams,’’ with Blythe Dan­ner, from a few years ago. It goes deeper, and it’s bet­ter.

PETER IOVINO PARA­MOUNT PICTURES VIA THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Jane Fonda, left, Mary Steen­bur­gen, cen­tre, and Candice Ber­gen star in “Book Club.”

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