Seven­tysome­thing stars bring wit, youth­ful en­ergy to com­i­cal gripes

‘Book Club’ will make you look for­ward to the ag­ing process

Woonsocket Call - - FILM - By ANN HORNADAY Three stars. Rated PG-13. Con­tains sex-re­lated ma­te­rial through­out and crude lan­guage. 104 min­utes.

In “Book Club,” Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Ber­gen and Mary Steen­bur­gen play four best friends who have not only been in the same read­ing cir­cle for 40 years, but have also achieved al­most iden­ti­cal con­sumerist heights. Drink­ing white wine and ar­rang­ing (but never ac­tu­ally con­sum­ing) be­spoke ap­pe­tiz­ers against the back- drops of their im­mac­u­late Los Angeles kitchens, the lives of these char­ac­ters might dif­fer in the de­tails, but not their pros­per­ous, phys­i­cally fit, al­most freak­ishly well-pre­served gestalt.

Fonda plays Vi­vian, a wealthy ho­tel owner who prefers ca­sual sex to com­mit­ment; Keaton plays Diane, whose hus­band died a year ago and whose kids are nag­ging her to move to Ari­zona, pre­sum­ably to dry up and qui­etly senesce; Ber­gen’s Sharon is a di­vorced fed­eral judge who gave up ro­mance years ago; and Steen­bur­gen plays Carol, a cheer­ful home­maker who longs to spice things up with her long­time hus­band, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson).

As “Book Club” opens, the group has just fin­ished Ch­eryl Strayed’s “Wild.” (The un­der­whelmed ver­dict: “She hiked. She lost her boot. She did heroin.”) Then some­one sug­gests they tackle “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the DIY piece of “Twi­light” fan fic­tion that be­came a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non. Soon, the women are de­vour­ing E.L. James’s vi­o­let prose and po­lite vi­o­lence with vary­ing de­grees of alarm and avid­ity, with each of them ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an erotic awak­en­ing no less rev­e­la­tory for be­ing achieved with­out ac­tual hand­cuffs and a whip.

“Book Club,” which was di­rected by Bill Hol­d­er­man from a script he wrote with Erin Simms, has been called “Sex and the City of a Cer­tain Age,” although this city is no­tional in its re­al­ism (wel­come to an L.A. where no peo­ple of color live, work or even qual­ify as back­ground play­ers), and the li­bidi­nous ac­tiv­ity is strictly PG-13: At one point, an er­rant f-word is in­ge­niously cam­ou­flaged with a dis­creet cough. The script is a-bub­ble with witty, on-point ob­ser­va­tions about ag­ing bod­ies and flag­ging sex drives (at one point, Carol com­pares a part of her anatomy to Werner Her­zog’s “Cave of For­got­ten Dreams”), which en­liven oth­er­wise generic set­ups and slug­gish, off-kil­ter pac­ing.

Stodgi­ness, an in­her­ent hazard of the genre, is kept rea­son­ably at bay with the help of choice cuts from Tom Petty, Paul Si­mon and Bob Dy­lan.

The all-star ensem­ble, dom­i­nated by ac­tresses who were at their height in the 1970s, works well as an easy­go­ing team, their mu­tual warmth en­hanced by the kind of dif­fuse, soft-edged light made fa­mous by the di­rec­tor Nancy Mey­ers. Fonda brings her usual crisp, alert fo­cus to the role of a se­rial man-izer, even as her nat­u­ral sex ap­peal is un­der­mined by an un­flat­ter­ing red wig. Keaton, re­splen­dent in her sig­na­ture menswear-chic, keeps the dither­ing man­ner­isms to a min­i­mum. Steen­bur­gen, the class whip­per­snap­per, por­trays a con­vinc­ing mash-up of strained long­ing and perky op­ti­mism. The stand­out of the group is also the one we see most rarely in movies these days: Ber­gen lays into her char­ac­ter’s wry aperçus with the im­pec­ca­ble tim­ing and dead­pan fa­cial ex­pres­sions that made her a comedic star on the sit­com “Mur­phy Brown.”

If “Book Club” does any­thing to bring Ber­gen back to the big screen, even its cheesi­est mo­ments will have been worth it, and that in­cludes Fonda’s painfully awk­ward frolic with an equally ill-atease suitor in a foun­tain. But it fea­tures ter­rific sup­port­ing per­for­mances as well, es­pe­cially from male love in­ter­ests por­trayed by Don John­son, Richard Drey­fuss, Andy Gar­cia and Nelson, who is re­spon­si­ble for the film’s Big Talker of a sight gag, when his char­ac­ter runs afoul of a dou­ble-dose of Vi­a­gra.

As an ex­am­ple of fan-ficfic, “Book Club” bears next to no re­sem­blance to the steamy lit­er­a­ture to which it pays mostly tepid homage. But it has brio, rue­ful hu­mor and cel­e­bra­tory verve that is nearly im­pos­si­ble to re­sist.

Melinda Sue Gor­don/Para­mount Pictures

From left, Diane Keaton, Candice Ber­gen, Jane Fonda and Mary Steen­bur­gen in “Book Club.”

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