Book Club 2: The Next Chapter reunites us with the foursome of the original film – Vivian, played by Jane Fonda, Diane, played by Diane Keaton, Sharon, played by Candice Bergen, and Carol, played by Mary Steenburgen. Their characters are much the same – Vivian is free-spirited, Diane is anxious, Sharon is gruff, and Carol is warm – but the focus of the film is a little different this time around. Despite the title, there’s virtually nothing about books, or about the book club, with the narrative instead playing out as a travelogue in which the four friends head to Italy to celebrate Vivian’s upcoming marriage to Arthur, played by Don Johnson. The same lovely gentle vibe ensues, but there’s a more burnished sense of the present moment now, as the characters aphoristically observe that “in the evening, everything is now” and “at the table, one does not grow old.” Along the way, it turns out that Arthur has also travelled to Italy, unbeknownst to Vivian, and is waiting to marry her in Tuscany. Yet this gives way to an extraordinary repudiation of marriage, and affirmation of love, that makes The Next Chapter as much of a subversion of the Italian travelogue genre as Catherine Hardwicke’s Mafia Mamma, although in a very different tone, style and register.
The film opens during the pandemic, and with an acute sense of how old age has been reshaped by the emergence of COVID-19. Insofar as the book club itself persists into the narrative, it is through the Zoom chats that function as a kind of prelude to the film proper, during which we hear about the various ways that lockdown has taken a toll on the four characters. Sharon has retired after thirty years of being a judge, Carol has been forced to close down her family restaurant, and Diane is more neurotic than ever. Still, these constrictions have also bred experimentation, most dramatically Vivian’s decision to become engaged after seventy years of being unattached: “How does a woman in her 70s end up getting married? It all started when the world shut down.” Gradually, these book club sessions drift into general pandemic talk, and so the only formal meeting occurs when the friends catch up for the first time after lockdown, when their ebullience at their physical proximity blooms into a decision to embark upon a trip that they’d initially planned before they settled down into marriage, motherhood and careers. Travelling to Italy in the immediate wake of COVID becomes a form of optimistic risk-taking in old age, and to the film’s credit the pandemic never makes itself felt again, as the women psychologically shield themselves from their vulnerability with even more casually crude – almost unconscious – sex talk than the original.
That sex talk, which tends to consist of one genital euphemism after another, is absorbed into an even gentler feeling than the original too – the vibe of actors who are not afraid to perambulate at a slower and more languorous pace. The whole film feels consummately relaxed, a testament to actors and characters who are comfortable in their own skin, and subsists mainly on cruisey strolling through cities, and a willingness to stop even the lightest stroll when it feels too much: “Rome is a great walking city, but it is an even better sitting down and drinking wine city.” “You say that about every city!” Even the synth pulse for the final helicopter ride to the wedding, the most manically propulsive sequence in the film, occurs at a stately and serene pace, as if old age had removed the burden of having to hurry.
Within that mellifluous atmosphere, The Next Chapter separates Fonda more emphatically from the rest of the group than the original, and fashions an extraordinary tribute to her life and career. Getting married is a big step for Vivian, who always preferred being a girlfriend to a wife, and she reflects that “My solo act is coming to an end, which is strange, especially for me.” In response, Diane assures her that “You tore up the instruction manual and you just never looked back. You’re the bravest person I know” and it’s hard to disagree with her. After a lifetime of activism, nobody could blame Fonda for taking a comfortable path in her older age, just as none of the friends can blame Vivian for settling down after a life of continuing the project of the 70s counterculture. For the middle part of the film, it seems like this indeed will happen, and that we will feel happy for Vivian for finding peace in these precious years.
Yet The Next Chapter ends with a non-marriage that subverts the Italian travelogue genre every bit as dramatically as the ultra-violence of Mafia Mamma. After the walk down the aisle is delayed for one comic reason after another, Vivian meets Arthur on the podium with a dedication of love so deep that it instantly displaces the entire wedding ceremony. Arthur replies in kind, reassuring Vivian that “I don’t need the title of husband or the institution of marriage to know that I want to spend the rest of our lives together.” In fact, he uses the wedding ring as a symbol of why marriage would only compromise Vivian: “You’re a complete and perfect circle of your own.” Finally, he gets down on his knees and non-proposes – “Will you not marry me?” – to which Vivian responds that “There is nothing I would love more,” leading Sharon, who is officiating the ceremony, to close the proceedings: “May you always love each other just as much as you do today. I now pronounce you not husband and wife.”
One of the great conflicts of the Boomer project was how to reconcile its collective visions of love with the very human desire to grow old with one person. Here, Vivian and Arthur achieve that compromise beautifully, with a tact, humility and ingenuity that places The Last Chapter in the grandest tradition of the Boomer project. Since this is still a Hollywood film, there has to be a wedding, and so Diane and her boyfriend Mitchell, played by Andy Garcia, take over the podium and are spontaneously married on the spot. But between the tokenism of this final union and Keaton’s own career-long scrutiny about why she has never married, marriage itself is eclipsed as a point of reference, especially because Sharon, who oversees it all, never feels pressured to end up with just one man. She’ll presumably continue the old age flings that she extols to the other three women at the very beginning. And hopefully Book Club will becomes a franchise that follows suit by suggesting that pleasure can always be extended, even for older women, so often systematically robbed of pleasure by the Hollywood machine.