‘Book Club: The Next Chapter’ Review: You’re Going to Need a Lot of Wine to Enjoy This Sloppy Sequel

Come for Keaton, Fonda, Bergen, and Steenburgen. Try not to run away from everything else.
Book Club 2 review
"Book Club: The Next Chapter"
Focus Features

In 2018, when Bill Holderman’s directorial debut “Book Club” first hit the big screen, this writer wondered — not entirely facetiously — how high the amiable comedy’s white wine budget must have been. After all, most of the action of the star-studded feature unfolded in cozy living rooms and swanky hotels (read: sets on top of sets), with many of these locales being positively sloshed on, over, and under with light libations.

For its sequel, Holderman and his crackling cast — including returning stars Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen — have allegedly leveled up, taking their booze-swilling and truth-talking foursome on the road for a whirlwind trip to Italy. The Prosecco budget? High! The rest of it? Well, despite claims that the production decamped to Italy for over two months, even the glitziest parts of “Book Club: The Next Chapter” look as if they were filmed on location at glamorous Caesar’s Palace.

Blindingly overlit, incoherently edited, and rife with baffling plot contrivances, the disappointing “Book Club: The Next Chapter” still manages to maintain the heart of its original story, but that only seems to be thanks to the chemistry of its central foursome. Predictable entanglements and uninspired gags — stolen luggage, leering at iconic statues of naked people, mistaking an attractive man in uniform for a stripper, the whole dumb American tourist gamut, really — are interspersed with genuinely moving and valuable insights into what it means to grow older, especially as a woman.

All of these women are sharp, desirable, endearing, complicated, funny, sexy, smart, and messy. Their bond is strong, their lives are not over, and some of the lessons they are forced to learn hold actual resonance beyond the big screen. It’s too bad then that so much of what we see on the big screen detracts from the story and characters at its heart.

Scripted again by Holderman and Erin Simms, the opening moments of “Book Club: The Next Chapter” attempt to root it very much in the here and now, as our book club besties zip us through their own experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic, including lockdown, quarantine, and a chilling (but believable!) amount of Zoom get-togethers. They read everything from “Normal People” to “The Alchemist,” while also dabbling in pickling their own vegetables, attempting to bond with “rescue parrots,” and dealing with forced retirements of all stripes.

When they’re finally reunited — a stilted affair that feels oddly bloodless — they’re juiced up on “reading the signs” and dealing with troublesome fate (they did just finish “The Alchemist,” after all) and the revelation that the perpetually single-and-loving-it Vivian (Fonda) is engaged to her paramour from the first film (returning co-star Don Johnson, as Arthur). Resident planner Carol (Steenburgen, effervescent as ever) is still reeling from the loss of her restaurant and a scary heart attack that almost took her cute husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), and she’s got an idea, dammit: The foursome will take the trip to Italy they dreamed of decades ago, long before real life got in the way.

Everyone reacts differently. Vivian doesn’t want to upset Arthur. Diane (Keaton) is terrified of leaving her neatly arranged life (including her own boyfriend, Andy Garcia, back as Mitchell). Sharon (Bergen) can’t leave behind her cat, goddammit. Soon enough, fate (sorry) aligns to convince the ladies they need to go, and now. As they bounce between cities (weirdly, the whole aim of the trip is to go to Tuscany, though the foursome soon engages in repeated demands to mix up the itinerary, padding out an already too-long feature), they have tons of fun and reckon with their own mortality. More Prosecco, please!

It’s mostly shapeless, sprinkled with sequences both fun (shopping montage!) and strange (a handsome stranger sings to them in Italian at a party… held at a cooking school… with a masquerade theme?), plus plenty of wacky coincidences and a worrying amount of countryside footage that looks like it was purchased from Getty. And that’s the rub: “Book Club: The Next Chapter”  feels fun and frisky, and it looks just awful. Moments in which we see the foursome all doing something benign, like sitting around a table imbibing wine, are intercut with shots in which it seems obvious they’re not even on the same continent, let alone in the same room. Two months in Italy? How?

As the journey at hand finally finds some semblance of direction — albeit one most viewers will see coming from a mile off — the charms ramp up. These are characters we want to see happy, fulfilled, and having fun. The conclusion of “Book Club: The Next Chapter” provides that. But most of the pages leading up to it? They need another draft. Wine might help, too.

Grade: C-

Focus Features will release “Book Club: The Next Chapter” in theaters on Friday, May 12.

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