The “Fifty Shades” book trilogy could be called an embarrassment of riches. It sold like crazy, making a ton of money for author E.L. James and publisher Vintage Books (part of Random House), but they weren’t books most people displayed on their bookshelves. Likewise, the movie trilogy was savaged by critics, even as the series cumulatively grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. Now, though, we have the best “Fifty Shades” movie of them all: Book Club.
An unusual creative duo made the film. Bill Holderman got his start as an assistant to the producer on 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries, then moved up to producer with Lions for Lambs and The Conspirator. He’d co-written the screenplay for A Walk in The Woods, which starred Robert Redford. An associate producer on Woods, Erin Simms had mostly worked as an actress, though many of her roles are of the “Female Reporter” or “New York Hotel Clerk” ilk as listed on IMDb. She’d never written a screenplay before, and Holderman had never directed. But they came together to write and produce Book Club, with Holderman directing, and they’ve produce an assured and well-paced comedy.
They also recruited a truly stellar cast, beginning with their four leads: Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen. Between them they’ve won 4 Oscars and 6 Emmys on top of numerous nominations. However, they’d never worked together before in their long careers. After seeing how well they play off of each other here, it’s a crime to think it took this long for them to be matched together.
The quartet play life-long friends who’ve met monthly to discuss a book for decades. Now in their later years, each is faced with a challenge. Diane (Keaton) is newly widowed, and her two daughters want her to leave California and move closer to them in Arizona. Then her life takes an unusual twist when she meets a handsome pilot, Mitchell (Andy Garcia). Vivian (Fonda), the hard-charging owner of a luxury hotel, reconnects with an old flame staying in her establishment (Don Johnson, a wonderful bit of meta-casting since his daughter, Dakota, starred in the Fifty Shades trilogy). Sharon (Bergen) is a federal judge who son and long-divorced husband (Ed Begley Jr.) are both now engaged to be married to women in their twenties. Carol (Steenburgen) is married to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), but while they still love each other the flame of passion has died. Vivian lobs a grenade into their worlds when she chooses “Fifty Shades of Grey” as the next book for the club to read.
It is a pleasure to see fine actresses (and actors) dive into their roles with abandon. Bergen zings lines in a way that recalls the heyday of “Murphy Brown” while still carrying one of the more emotionally resonant moments of the film. She also ends up on two dates with diametrically-opposed actors – Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn. The other pairings are inspired, particularly Steenburgen and Nelson with a dance routine to a Meatloaf song. But the biggest pleasure is seeing fully fleshed-out roles written for mature women in contrast to the ageism usually seen in Hollywood. A 70 year-old guy could have a love live, but not a similarly-aged woman. Time for a reality check.
The showbiz maxim (ascribed to many though likely originating with actor Edmund Gwen) is, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Yet the cast of Book Club make it look natural, and Holderman and Simms have crafted a screenplay that is laugh-out-loud funny, so much so that you might miss some lines amidst the audience’s laughter. Kudos also to E.L. James for being a good sport to allow the film to use her book (she does get a thank you from the producers in the credits).
Even in a week dominated by Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, Book Club came in 3rd place in the box office, with a weekend gross of $13.6 million. Considering the budget was a lean $10 million, it’s already in the black. It’s not surprising that it’s received a middling response from critics – the film seeks to entertain and does a good job of it, but it’s the type of film that’s usually dismissed as lightweight. However, its CinemaScore among viewers is A-. Mixed in among the blockbusters of summer, there’s usually a couple films that either tug at your heartstrings or tickle your funny bone without a five-wide scroll of special effects credits that goes on for a minute or two. Book Club definitely is the one that tickles the funny bone.