Synopsis: Four elderly best friends take their book club to Italy for the fun girls’ trip they never had. When things go off the rails, and secrets are revealed, their relaxing vacation turns into a once-in-a-lifetime cross-country adventure.
Stars: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Craig T. Nelson, Giancarlo Giannini, Hugh Quarshie, Vincent Riotta
Director: Bill Holderman
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: While it’s true that many of the screenings we critics attend are usually just a handful of us sitting solo in a dark theater furiously scribbling in our little notebooks and then trying to decipher later what we wrote (I gave this up long ago when my notes for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms made even less sense than the movie itself, if that was possible), we do often get a +1 to bring along to keep us company. On special occasions, I’ve pressed my luck and asked to bring a +2, and that’s how I wound up taking my mother and my partner to see 2018’s Book Club as a special pre-Mother’s Day treat.
This was the first time my mom had ever been to one of these events, and the fanfare for this release was deluxe, with a photo booth (with props!) and first-class seating being offered. It’s too bad the movie was such a complete dud, with my usually MN-nice Lutheran mother’s only comment being, “I thought that was going to be a lot better than that.” Me too, Mom, me too. When I told her that I was headed to a screening of a sequel now five years later (surprisingly being announced after original distributor Paramount Pictures sold the rights to Focus Features) and asked if she wanted to join me, she demurred, remembering what a gobbling turkey the original was.
I guess I get my quick rush to judgment from her (along with a sparkling smile!) because Book Club: The Next Chapter is a follow-up that exceeds its predecessor in nearly every way. Though written and directed by the same team, it feels like it was handled by a fresh set of creatives who took notes on what audiences didn’t respond to the first time, tailoring their sequel to the talents of the stars. They’ve returned with no classic but a pleasantly matinee-priced tour through Italy with a group we are more than willing to travel with.
Separated due to the pandemic, four members of a long-running book club are finally able to meet in person, and that’s when Vivian (Jane Fonda, Moving On) drops a bombshell on Diane (Diane Keaton, And So It Goes), Sharon (Candice Bergen, Let Them All Talk), and Carol (Mary Steenburgen, Nightmare Alley). She’s marrying her longtime boyfriend Arthur (Don Johnson, Django Unchained). With her man-hungry days behind her, Vivian has found happiness while her friends are going through romantic ups and downs. Diane is living with Mitchell (Andy Garcia, Jennifer 8) but isn’t quite over her deceased husband, and Carol has spent much of the lockdown caring for her husband (Craig T. Nelson, Troop Beverly Hills) after his heart attack. Sharon is the one member that remains single, and while she’s occasionally up to mingle, she’s more focused on settling into a semi-retirement.
With Vivian’s nuptials yet to be formalized, reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and Carol’s diaries from her youth stirs dreams of travel for the women. So, when the travel ban is lifted, they decide to throw their friend an epic overseas bachelorette party (as only retired wealthy white women can) where all the hotels are five-star and even the jail cells are pushing three and a half. As they traverse cities rich in fashion, luxury, and rugged men exactly their type, they’ll bond over unfulfilled dreams and make good on promises to keep pushing themselves to try new experiences.
As was the case with the first film, co-writers Erin Simms and Bill Holderman (who also directs) aren’t overly concerned with logistics or doing much with conflict, so it’s best to crack open Book Club: The Next Chapter with expectations firmly in check. A glass of white wine might help as well. The most considerable improvement is that while the first movie focused on the women discovering Fifty Shades of Grey and implementing that into their love lives to groan-worthy results, the sequel allows more pure personality to come through. That’s good news for fans of any of the four leads, each receiving ample time to shine.
I’ll repeat it now (just like I did in the review of 80 for Brady in January), but I’m not a fan of Fonda playing these vampy characters in so many movies. She’s such a strong actress, and why she continues to play women that depend on men for validation is mystifying. It’s a bit easier to stomach here because the character evolves some, but she’s still involved with the storyline you’ll least want to follow. Steenburgen is a treat as ever, and Bergen is finding a new renaissance in her career with brilliant deadpan line readings. It feels like Keaton is given more of a leading role this time, or maybe it’s because she gets decked out in one of the most Diane Keaton dresses ever. I swear, they convinced her to do the movie just by showing her the black and white dress and matching hat she gets to wear twice in the film.
Right at the cusp of the summer season, Book Club: The Next Chapter is arriving at a perfect time to combat a wave of films geared toward a younger audience. I’m wagering, and crossing my fingers, that its target audience comes out for it because this group needs more well-made movies in theaters directed to them as viable customers. Time will tell if a third chapter will be written for the members of this book club, but based on this sequel, it’s one I would be likely to pick up.