Yes, there’s a scene in Bill Holderman’s boomer-ensemble rom-com Book Club where the perpetually promiscuous bachelorette Vivian (Jane Fonda) has to shut up and listen as her long-lost beau Arthur (Don Johnson) delivers a movie-style confession of love with unabashed earnestness. In that moment, Holderman trains the camera just as much on Vivian as he does on Arthur, even though she’s not saying a word. Vivian purses her lips, tries to look away, skittish as a pussycat caught digging through the trash. For a split second, as I watched Vivian watch Arthur, I suddenly recognized Fonda from her iconic performance in 1969’s relentless, tearjerker classic They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? And I mean “recognized” in that, for a breath, all the kitsch trappings of rom-coms fell away and I was beholding the raw emotion that Fonda is capable of emitting. That’s a breathtaking ability, to channel such talent and experience into even humdrum scenes, something all four of Book Club’s leads — Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen and Candice Bergen — can do. Even though it follows the map of every rom-com before it, Holderman’s film still offers the too rare chance to marvel at just how good these women are at their craft, how easily they inhabit the bodies and lives of other people.
This story revolves around four successful women in a monthly book club who start reading E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which inspires them to rekindle their own love lives. Yet I nearly forgot that catalyst multiple times, getting caught up instead in the charming interplay of the actors. Occasionally, a character would remind me of those books’ supposed relevance with a toss-away line. But, really, Fifty Shades merely serves as an excuse to get these women into the same room regularly, where they talk about their love lives and can assess and critique one another’s relationships — or lack thereof.
The routine scenes of gathering are redeemed by the quick-fire casual banter. Each character is wholly formed, and often informed by these actors’ real-life personas, as well as the most popular characters they’ve brought to life in the past — from Murphy Brown to Annie Hall. As recently widowed Diane, Keaton does her loosey-goosey awkward shtick with flair. She quickly falls into her classic rhythms of adorable physical comedy in a scene in which Diane is seated on a plane next to a stranger who she’ll come to know as the dashing Mitchell (Andy Garcia). She tumbles over Mitchell’s body to her window seat and then almost knocks him out with a jerking elbow as she tries to retrieve anti-anxiety pills from her purse. Then a loud noise frightens her, and she grabs into Mitchell’s crotch to steady herself before mumbling some long-winded apologies punctuated by a perfectly Keatonesque exasperated gasp-laugh at her own silliness.
I don’t care if I’ve seen this performance from Keaton a million times, in such recent romances as Hampstead, Something’s Gotta Give, Darling Companion, And So It Goes or 5 Flights Up. Keaton is still charming as hell. Seriously, all a director has to do to please a crowd is shove Diane Keaton and Andy Garcia into an enclosed space and let them improv the shit out of graceless flirting. I’m thankful Holderman knows when to let his actors lead.
Candice Bergen, whose stern, critical voice defines her character Sharon’s judgmental nature — we’re a little on the nose here because she’s actually a federal judge — gets her own muddled meet-cute, with George (Richard Dreyfuss), whom she finds on a dating site. “I could legally put you in handcuffs,” she tells him, misgauging their familiarity and having to quickly apologize. That line drew quite the laugh from the audience I saw this with, not the writing so much as Bergen’s characteristically blunt delivery, spoken as if Sharon doesn’t process or feel shame in the same way other humans do but knows she’s supposed to.
Throwing all these actors together feels eerily like some kind of Avengers-type crossover for wine-drinking women curious about what would happen if the coach from Coach hooked up with the mom from Joan of Arcadia. I’m not not saying I’m that person. Netflix’s senior buddy comedy Grace and Frankie hits a lot of these same notes — especially the ones about having an active sex life even as your kids are trying to put you in a home — with a few of the same special guests, and is always an injection of joy. But one hidden purpose of a film like this is that it gives hope to the under-35 crowd that a woman can play the lead in her own story for the entirety of her life, not just until babies or marriage come along to define her. To get that beneficial message out of Book Club, you’ll have to endure every character’s requisite rom-com epiphany speech, but it’s still worth it.