' ' Cinema Romantico: Book Club

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Book Club

The novel at the center of Bill Holderman’s 2018 comedy “Book Club” is E.L. James’s infamous “Fifty Shades” trilogy of trash. It suggests, as the trailer did, no doubt to try and lure the youngsters for whom movies about the elderly are, per marketing focus groups, an anathema, a senior citizen fronted gross-out comedy. Oh, there are plenty of double entendres and illicit metaphors, true, as well as an extended Viagra joke between Carol (Mary Steenburgen) and her oblivious husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson, oblivious). But that Viagra joke improbably yields a genuine conversation, a la National Treasure Eugene Levy giving genuine council to the Jason Biggs character in the aftermath of his super glue incident in “American Pie 2.” Indeed, the book club of the title convened by Carol and her three longtime pals Diane (Diane Keaton), Vivian (Jane Fonda), and Sharon (Candice Bergen) is less about discussing the books in question than drinking white wine and employing those books as fuel to discuss their pleasures, or lack thereof, and as a window into broadening their outlooks on life and love. And really, isn’t that the point of art?

Those Viagra pills being given to Carol by Vivian evokes Samantha Jones, as My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife who was watching along with me noted, likening the quartet to the four icons of HBO’s “Sex and the City.” And much like that show disappointingly concluded on a note where all four women seemingly needed to be paired off rather than still gallantly single before the show could have a proper end, “Book Club” charts a similar path. The women casting off their spiritual shackles goes hand in hand with finding someone new or revitalizing the love they already had, though, to its credit, “Book Club” proves, on a plot by plot basis anyway, a bit more spry than this convention suggests.

These various male counterparts are hit or miss. Jane Fonda carries herself with a powerfully independent air, and Don Johnson, as a former lover re-introduced into her life, simply can’t match such energy. So he tries to downplay but to often feels like he's getting blown back anyway.
Andy Garcia, on the other hand, as Mitchell, an airline pilot who catches a flight in coach alongside Diane, evinces such a relaxed presence that he plays off Keaton’s comic discombobulation perfectly, letting his small smile do all the work, amused and entranced in equal measure; he makes it as good as a Meet Cute can get. Later, at a picturesque dinner at dusk alongside the Pacific, he sits with Keaton in a long shot, his legs crossed, attentively hanging on every word, belying the notion that he is just someone there for her to fall in love with but someone she is falling in love with because he’s interested in what she has to say.

Bergen, meanwhile, playing a divorced federal judge has abstained from dating in 18 years tentatively re-enters the dating game by going online (plug: Bumble). She meets one really nice man (Richard Dreyfuss) but the movie, thankfully, never pushes it, her dazed expression in a facial mask inadvertently becoming her profile pic functioning as a comical metaphor of how even as she agrees to something that is out of her hands it is nevertheless still on her terms. And so, Bergen is as Bergen does, tossing off acerbic one-liners like poison darts, swaggering into Book Club as the movie opens, throwing down her purse, and declaring her need for a drink. Later, at her son’s engagement party hosted by Sharon’s ex-husband, simply the way Bergen has her character take in some sort of modern art on the wall evokes a droll weariness with all of life’s nominally rich pageantry.

There is an inevitability to all these storylines, of course, because movies made in the vein of “Book Club” narratively never stray far from the beaten path even if their characters do. And no storyline has a more familiar arc than Carol and Bruce’s, hinging on dance lessons leading to a dance contest, a little like “Silver Linings Playbook” but without as much screwball liqueur and bitters. And yet. Even if they pull apart before only to re-convene in the midst of the dance itself, the movie waits a minute before Bruce joins in, allowing Carol the spotlight all to herself. She finds her happiness, in other words, without having it merely impressed upon her, just as he does too, which sounds a lot how love is actually supposed to work.

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