On the face of it, Book Club looks as if it might have more than a touch of Nancy Meyers about it. In fact, it’s hard to believe that Nancy Meyers hasn’t already gleaned a film from this premise – four older women, played by Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen, who gather once a month for a book club in one of their fabulous houses, while chowing down on an almost unbelievably decadent series of cheese spreads. Nevertheless, this is no Meyers joint, since the film itself is considerably edgier than the poster, and the promotional campaign would suggest, recalling Grace and Frankie much more than any recent Meyers film, and, further back, the irreverent friendships of Golden Girls. In fact, each of the women here seems to be modelled on a particular golden girl, with Fonda doing her best impression of Rue McClahanan as a hotel mogul who goes from one fling to the next, Bergen filling Bea Arthur’s shoes as a perpetually (if mildly) disapproving district judge, Steenburgen taking on Betty White’s wide-eyed playfulness, and Keaton often recalling Estelle Getty in her wryer and more acerbic commentary on the entire group.
The entire premise of the film is also quite different from what the title and poster would suggest, since while these four women do indeed belong to a book club, we see very little of the club, or get much of a sense of its history and traditions. Instead, the book club is more or less subsumed into Fifty Shades of Grey, which is their latest choice when the film opens, and which here becomes a manual for older age as much as for sexual experimentation, as the four women end their opening session by using the book as inspiration for a sex pact. While their exploration of their sexuality follows the arc of the next two books in E.L. James’ trilogy, , the book club itself ceases to really be an entity from this point onwards, with Bill Holderman shifting his attention to all the improbable and picaresque ways in which Fifty Shades might be imagined as a rallying point for aging pride.
In essence, then, Book Club is a tribute to the sexuality, and sexual prowess of older women, gifting these four actresses their best role in years – especially Keaton, who seems to have been perpetually consigned to the role of nagging mother, alternately tiresome or hokey depending upon the director’s bent. Here, however, she blossoms in a role that invests her with the curiosity, and the screwy quizzicality, that made her such a compelling actress in her heyday. It’s in her hands, in particular, and in her romance with a wealthy pilot played by Andy Garcia, that the film really blooms into a tribute to the life-arrming power of romance, sexuality and companionship. With all the women, though, the sense of romantic and sexual anticipation that suffuses the film feels quite novel when set against characters at this later stage in life, all all four of them managed to capture a breathless apprehension of futurity, and the possibilities of the future, that you rarely glimpse in films about older age. Key to that process are the blunt double entendres and bald metaphors that percolate through the dialogue, as if the women were determined to exhaust and eviscerate every joke that could be made at their expense, or every way they could be mocked for their oblivion, while also acknowledging the crudeness of their desires in a remarkably charming way, producing one screwy conjunction of soulfulness and lustful fixation after another.
In other words, Book Club is a film about older women cruising, with the result that even the more staid moments – and there are admittedly a few – have a real buoyance and freshness to them, just because the actresses are given such engaging parts. That’s not to say that their idea of romance isn’t generational, since it’s striking how often good old-fashioned love depends upon a kind of stalky insistence on the part of men that seems a bit on the nose from the perspective of current sexual mores. In a weird way, though, that also brings the film full circle, too, as the sense of romantic surveillance makes it feel as if the lives of these women are playing across multiple social media interfaces, despite the fact that none of them has a really stable or secure connection to the digital world. And it’s that very awkwardness – connected to the past but also indubitably a part of the present – that makes these women, and the film, feel so real, in one of the most deceptively soulful, salty and sophisticated Hollywood releases about ageing to hit the big screen in quite some time.