Review: In ‘Book Club,’ Women, Wine and the Pursuit of More

Posted May 17, 2018 3:53 p.m. EDT

The four members in the titular book club of “Book Club” are four women who have been meeting once a month to drink wine and talk about a book. They started in the ‘70s with Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” and have just turned their attention to E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey.” There’s a lot of literary and social history in the span between those two best sellers, which take their heroines from “zipless” adultery to handcuffed monogamy, from elusive liberation to consensual bondage.

But this movie isn’t much concerned with the novels themselves. The stories it has to tell about feminism and female sexuality are left mainly implicit in the script (by Bill Holderman and Erin Simms; Holderman directed) because they are written in the faces of its stars. And much in the way that their characters use reading as a pretext for hanging out and drinking wine — there will be wine in every paragraph of this review, as there is wine in nearly every scene of this film — the filmmakers understand that what will satisfy the audience is time in the company of Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen.

They embody a carefully plotted range of professional and marital situations. Sharon (Bergen) is a long-divorced federal judge. Diane (Keaton) is a recently widowed mother of two grown daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton). Vivian (Fonda) is a proudly unattached hotel owner. Carol (Steenburgen) is a happily married chef. (All of them are heterosexual.) Having finished with a book that sounds a lot like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” they turn to the adventures of Anastasia Steele. And while they make a few mild jokes about spanking and the Red Room over their glasses of chardonnay, “Fifty Shades” inspires them not to kinky exploration, but to the sharing and eventual correction of their own sexual frustrations.

Vivian might want something more than no-strings hookups. Carol is worried that she and her husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), have lost their spark. Sharon has given up on romance, and Diane’s attempts to enjoy her independence are thwarted by her protective, anxious children. But she meets a handsome pilot (Andy Garcia) and drinks wine with him at his place in Sedona. Sharon opens a Bumble account and drinks wine with Richard Dreyfuss. Vivian crosses paths with an old flame (Don Johnson) who still carries a torch for her. (They drink milkshakes.) Carol slips Bruce (who drinks beer) a Viagra mickey.

That doesn’t work out so well. Erectile humor is about as naughty as “Book Club” gets and about as imaginative. There is no risk of seriously hurt feelings or biting satire. Even Sharon’s former husband (Ed Begley Jr.) and his much-younger fiancée (Mircea Monroe) are treated with more kindness than scorn. What drives the plot through its genial motions isn’t the struggle for freedom or even the pursuit of happiness, but rather the impulse to improve lives that are already fundamentally (and oenophilically) happy and free.

There is an element of fantasy in this, of course, and also a great deal of reality left out of the picture. It does seem a bit odd, for instance, that a comedy about four 70-ish American women in 2018 would have nothing to say about either of the candidates in the most recent presidential election, but this isn’t the only recent movie to respond to the political situation by wishing it out of existence. And besides, these women — Fonda, Keaton, Steenburgen and Bergen, that is — have nothing to prove. Each one brings enough credibility and charisma to “Book Club” to render its weaknesses largely irrelevant. You’d be happy to watch them read the phone book. Or the Oxford English Dictionary. Or “The Oxford Companion to Wine.”

Additional Information:

‘Book Club’

Rated PG-13. Vanilla spice. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes.