Author E.L. James’ Fifty Shades book series was a cultural phenomenon. It made the world stand up and realize that women are a galvanizing and forceful demographic. Whether the books are truly feminist is certainly debatable; however, it indisputably imbued its female protagonist with sexual agency, leading her to discover her voice and power. Director/ co-writer Bill Holderman’s BOOK CLUB also serves as an entertaining, inspiring answer for an under-served market – and shows his female protagonists rediscovering their voices and latent power. This Chardonnay-soaked, Nancy-Meyers-adjacent romcom gets it done, as it’s smart, sexy, radiant, ebullient, refreshing and layered AF. The SEX AND THE CITY ladies could learn a thing or two from these gals.
The friends at the heart of this story are in for a raucous ride, as they are all caught at a crossroads in their lives. Vivian (Jane Fonda) is a very successful hotelier, but feels the familiar pang of regret when a former flame (Don Johnson) returns. Sharon (Candace Bergen) is a highly respected, driven judge still not over her decades-old divorce. Carol (Mary Steenburgen) runs a top restaurant, but is desperate to reignite the fires of romance with her husband (Craig T. Nelson). And Diane (Diane Keaton) is about a year in on being widowed after 40 years of marriage. This is precisely when the Fifty Shades books enter into their world, turning them upside down in ways they couldn’t imagine.
One of the myriad things this film has going for it is that these characters (and the actresses playing them) radiate likability. Thanks to their insane chemistry, the audience will want to spend as much time as possible with them. Thankfully, Holderman, along with co-writer Erin Simms, don’t separate them for too long on their individual quests. They find a good balance between all four of the womens’ arcs – a true feat given the brisk runtime. The humor is rapid-fire. There are lots of genuinely hilarious jokes – from a CAVE OF THE FORGOTTEN DREAMS reference that had me laughing for longer than what would be deemed appropriate, to Bergen’s sarcasm-infused delivery of the lone “F” word, to Keaton’s straight-faced punchlines. There are even some subtle double-entendres at play too. Not all the jokes work, sometimes coming across as predictable (Spanx jokes still, really?!), but the actresses really sell it. They go for the gusto and make the audience believe in their innocent naiveté.
Will this make you want to pick up James’ best-selling novels? No – and that’s okay. While the film embraces the spirit of the book, and there are Easter Eggs scattered throughout (including a very fun blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo), the filmmakers wisely push the poorly-written fanfic to the side and let the women experience their own informed journeys towards next-chapter awakenings. That way, the audience’s opinions on Fifty Shades’ questionable sexual empowerment don’t impede the enjoyment of the far more grounded narrative here. The novel is only the impetus for their actions. Sure, there are the pre-requisite shots of the ladies reading the book, clutching at their metaphorical pearls (or, in Keaton’s case, stylish neckerchiefs), stifling their puritanical “oh my’s,” and picking their jaws up off the floor. But it doesn’t drive their ensuing hijinks.
If its sweet messages about female friendship aren’t enough, another noteworthy ingredient is that it redefines what’s considered sexy when it comes to a man’s role in films of this ilk. Instead of crafting the supporting male characters as musky, machismo-fueled men, or making them objects of some kind of reverse sexism, it restructures that tropey model, making them far more sensual. The filmmakers adeptly tap into common knowledge (though rarely demonstrated on screen) that it’s sexier to women to see men be vulnerable, caring, intimate and unabashedly supportive of their ladies’ wants and needs. The men here complement (and compliment) the women.
There are a few bumps along the way. For someone who’s supposed to be sexually uninhibited and progressive, the movie doesn’t allow Vivian to fully live out her truth. Though she talks a big game about having multiple sexual partners (as people like her often do to cover up insecurities), and her friends comment on her sexual exploits, she’s never shown sleeping around with multiple partners, nor objectifying the male sex either. Another problem is that Diane never takes on any culpability for letting her daughters think she’s fragile. She plays into it! While it’s clear the filmmakers are creating a THREE’S COMPANY-style climax of shenanigan-laden misunderstandings, the mechanics make things feel like Diane is not an unwitting player in this game. It feels intentional for purposes of her journey’s inevitable resolution.
At the end of the day, BOOK CLUB addresses a missing piece in our cinematic landscape, not only with what it portrays (women of a certain age with powerful agency), but also what it stands for (giving mature actresses fantastic meaty material to dig into). With heartening, poignant sentiments about female friendships and rekindling romance, there’s nothing you wouldn’t want to support.
BOOK CLUB opens on May 18.