The white wine budget for Bill Holderman’s directorial debut, the amiable “Book Club,” must have been staggering. Styled like a more mature and feel-good “Sex and the City” for the older set — complete with an appealing cast and charming characters — Holderman’s film springs from some unlikely experience: he and co-writer Erin Simms were first inspired by their own mothers’ reading of the racy bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey,” opting to turn that idea into a full-blown feature all about living life to the fullest, long after 50 (plus lots of wine).
Reading that heart-racing novel is just an entry point, though, and so is the eponymous book club, both of which serve as movie-ready ways to get an audience to know and care about a set of lifelong friends, all of whom are struggling with the realities of their age. While the book and its eye-popping material push its four leading ladies into some strange new positions (both figural and literal), the framework of the film is firmly traditional.
The central foursome has been meeting for decades to talk about books and life, but when their wildest member shows up with four copies of E.L. James’ vaguely kinky phenomenon, it has unexpected consequences for everyone. A fun-enough marriage of Nancy Meyers’ movies, told through the narrative structure of a “Valentine’s Day” or “He’s Just Not That Into You,” it’s the best Mother’s Day movie to hit the big screen after the big holiday in, well, ever. Chintzy CGI and a handful of rushed-through storylines don’t quite derail it, and “Book Club” is happy to exist as advertised: primed for group-watching, hopefully with a big glass of white wine in hand. You could do much worse at the movie theater, and your mom is going to love it.
The greatest asset of “Book Club” is its star-studded cast, a whole mess of big names brought together under the kind of umbrella that screams, “They had so much fun making this!” It’s certainly hard not to have fun watching them, especially when the core foursome are together, guzzling booze and reflecting on lives that didn’t always meet their expectations. At some point, however, they’re going to learn the film’s big lesson: They’ve got a lot more to live, and maybe those expectations can still be upended.
Jane Fonda stars as Vivian, a sexy hotelier who has gone through life unattached (though not unsatisfied). She’s the randiest member of the group, and with all the best lines to match. Candice Bergen’s Sharon is a federal judge who never quite bounced back from her divorce, while Mary Steenburgen’s Carol is a successful chef who is becoming increasingly unhappy in her long-time marriage. Diane Keaton rounds out the group as Diane (hey, if it works), a recent widow who is eager to live her own life, despite the protests of her over-involved daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton in inspired casting). Of course, it’s Vivian who forces them all to read “Fifty Shades” (it’s her turn to pick, and bestselling novels that were made into box-office hits is their book club theme of the year), a tantalizing choice that sets all the women on a path to self-discovery.
“Book Club” succeeds not only in casting excellent stars, but also in placing them in juicy roles rooted in the real world. As Carol comes to grips with her lack of sex with hubby Craig T. Nelson, Vivian is facing up to the fact that all of her encounters might be hiding the real problem (and the reappearance of an old flame, played by Don Johnson, does not help). Diane falls for a charming pilot (Andy Garcia), just as Sharon finally snaps and decides to go all-in on online dating (via a very strange Bumble interface). They’ve still got life in their bones, but that doesn’t mean that these ladies have everything figured out.
Holderman and Simms’ script flips through each of the ladies’ various dramas, occasionally tossing them back together for a good-hearted rescue mission or a brand-new book club meeting (yes, they end up reading the whole trilogy), and while there’s never quite enough time to dig into each story on its own, together they make an entertaining tableau. Keaton and Garcia’s love story is particularly sweet, and any film in which a straight-faced Bergen has to deal with a medical diagnosis that’s chalked up to a “lethargic pussy” pretty much sells itself. And that’s to say nothing of a final-act tap-dancing sequence, set to Meatloaf, performed by the always-game Steenburgen.
It’s light entertainment meant to be shared, a big glass of summer fun that goes down easy.
“Book Club” hits theaters on Friday, May 18.