‘Book Club: The Next Chapter’ Review: Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda in an Affectionate But Strained Romp

Signed, sealed and delivered, Book Club: The Next Chapter is an unabashed love letter to four great movie stars. As a vehicle for their talents, it’s less of a sure thing. If you can see past the clunky plot contrivances, strained hijinks and one-liners that don’t land, and focus on the Italy-set comedy’s Mediterranean glow and the dazzling quartet of go-getters at its center, the movie might fit the bill as a celebratory pairing with Mother’s Day brunch.

The tagline on the key art encapsulates the sequel’s problems: “Slightly Scandalous. Totally Fabulous.” That qualifying “slightly” signals the softer cadence of this reunion. In the 2018 hit, Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen transcended the often tepid humor with their rat-a-tat delivery; here, returning director Bill Holderman, again working from a screenplay he wrote with Erin Simms, struggles to find a rhythm, and flat jokes too often hang in the air. As to this fearsome foursome’s fabulosity, it needs no underlining, but Next Chapter is very busy with a highlighter, less we forget.

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Kicking things off with Tom Petty’s infectious and pointed “American Girl,” Holderman sets a buoyant mood that’s quickly deflated by six pre-title minutes of the clique’s pandemic Zooming. As the world reopens, they agree, after some give-and-take, to revive a long-shelved plan for a vacation in Italy, one that turns into a bachelorette getaway for Fonda’s Vivian, who surprises no one more than herself when she becomes engaged to Arthur (Don Johnson), the long-ago boyfriend she rediscovered in the previous installment. The high-powered, commitment-averse hotelier has been enjoying a New York penthouse lifestyle with him, while Keaton’s widowed Diane is living the New Mexico dream with pilot Mitchell (Andy Garcia). With their understated supporting turns, Johnson and Garcia provide a welcome antidote to all the over-enunciated exuberance.

Sharon, the divorced federal judge played by Bergen, has retired and is still playing the field with gusto. Long-married chef Carol (Steenburgen), having shuttered her Los Angeles eatery during the COVID lockdown, has taken up the accordion — a real-life talent of Steenburgen’s, and pretty darn cool. Not so cool is Carol’s use of domestic spyware to monitor the eating habits of hubby Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), who’s recovering from a heart attack. A ham-handed scene revolving around bacon is the unfortunate result.

The four longtime friends have moved on from the Fifty Shades trilogy — which, five years ago, jump-started their lives on the romance and sex fronts — to the pop mysticism of Paulo Coelho’s self-help fable The Alchemist. Its advice to embrace serendipity and not submit to fate as a victim is the unsubtle guiding principle as these superachiever American girls, in their 70s and 80s, embark on their Italian adventure. They take their moveable feast of comfort and luxury and endless long-stemmed glasses of wine to Rome and Tuscany, with an impromptu detour to Venice. There are landmarks and selfies, gelato and prosecco, and double entendres so broad they might qualify as quadruples. Serendipity arrives in the form of sparks between Sharon and Ousmane (Hugh Quarshie), a life-loving retired professor of philosophy, and Carol reignites a culinary flame with Gianni (Vincent Riotta), a fellow chef she once loved.

The daytime scenes are cast in a honeyed light by DP Andrew Dunn, and Stefano Maria Ortolani’s production design nabs the high-end good life to which these four are accustomed. Amid such riches, the assortment of setbacks that arise like clockwork are never dire enough to provoke real panic. But they do provide a reason for run-ins with a clownishly unhelpful police chief played by Giancarlo Giannini. The esteemed Italian actor and Bergen bonded and clashed in Lina Wertmüller’s 1978 romantic drama A Night Full of Rain. Here, in a very different vein, Bergen’s no-filters Sharon gives Giannini’s lawman an earful.

Emphasizing that Book Club is about the performers more than the characters, Holderman interrupts the travelogue for an all-out lovefest sequence in an opulent bridal salon, where Fonda’s bride-to-be and her three besties all get to flaunt their magnificent selves in a fashion show of gowns. Stefano De Nardis’ costumes shower the actors with affection — in Keaton’s case especially, paying tribute to her distinctive fashion profile.

In the midst of one evening’s festivities, product placement for a brand of liqueur is so conspicuous, the bottle’s label so precisely positioned before the camera, that it might as well have been accompanied by a jingle. As to the film’s song soundtrack, after the promise of Petty, it lapses into a less-than-commanding mix of vintage pop. A party scene featuring a new rendition of the rousing international hit “Gloria,” led by Quarshie and Steenburgen, could have been a blast if Holderman didn’t remind the audience at every awkward turn just what a blast all the characters are having.

Sustaining the thin narrative was not the top priority, it seems; The Next Chapter moves in and out of a sense of emotional connection. When it does indulge in straight-up sentiment, the results, however obvious, are a welcome break from the half-baked shenanigans. A scene between Keaton and Fonda is affecting precisely because it’s A Scene Between Keaton and Fonda.

Holderman and Simms’ screenplay endorses tradition but also gently (slightly?) questions it — specifically, the tradition of marriage. What’s most interesting about this Chapter is that it pushes aside the matter of age as a deciding factor and focuses on temperament and personality. And there’s something moving about seeing octogenarian Fonda as a first-time bride walking down the aisle, at once regal and unguarded.

Hell yes, Hollywood needs more movies about female friendship, and it needs more movies that place older women front and center. Watching this one, it’s easy to kvell over the signature silhouettes and screen essences of four extraordinary performers: Keaton’s deft-clumsy openness, Fonda’s ineffable elegance and strength, Bergen’s unparalleled timing and stinging wit, and Steenburgen’s graceful ebullience. Actresses in earlier eras didn’t have the chance to do what they’re doing here. If only they were doing it in a better movie.

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