Book Club review: A dip in the careers of its venerable stars

Dir Bill Holderman, 100 mins, starring: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Andy Garcia, Craig T Nelson

There have been plenty of raunchy old men films, sclerotic efforts like Last Vegas (in which OAPs led by Michael Douglas run amok in the bright light city) or The Bucket List, in which Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman went around the world. It’s only fair that women of a certain age should be allowed to behave badly too. Book Club certainly provides them with that opportunity.

In the film, a very distinguished cast of four venerable actresses, Jane Fonda (now 80), Diane Keaton (a sprightly 72), Candice Bergen (also 72) and Mary Steenburgen (a mere 65), play the sex-starved grannies. They’ve been friends for years and have formed a book club. The novel they’re getting started on now is, of course, Fifty Shades of Grey.

The women’s romantic lives are in disarray. Diane (Fonda) is a successful businesswoman who shuns commitment. (She has plenty of sex but never lets her lovers spend the night.) Vivian (Keaton) is getting over the death of her husband and having to deal with mollycoddling daughters who treat her as if she is as fragile as china.

Carol (Steenburgen) is happily married to Bruce (Craig T Nelson), but their love life has cranked to a halt since he lost his job – and seemingly his libido as well. Sharon (Bergen) is a Federal Court judge who hasn’t had sex in almost two decades.

Director and co-writer Bill Holderman doesn’t have any qualms about stripping his distinguished leading ladies of their dignity – and sometimes of their clothing too. Some of the smuttier jokes here have a cinephile edge. When Sharon asks what happens to a vagina that hasn’t been used in 18 years, one of her friends pipes up that Werner Herzog has just made a documentary on that very subject…Cave Of Forgotten Dreams.

“If women our age were supposed to have sex, God wouldn’t have done what he did to our bodies,” another offers by way of rationalisation for their romantic disappointments.

As they devour Fifty Shades (“have you ever been spanked?”), the four women embark on their epic quests to “get laid”.

The plotting is on the schematic aside. Holderman cuts from one of his heroines to the next – and every so often we get to see them all together, quaffing wine and discussing flagellation, on book club nights. Fonda’s character has ageing lothario Arthur (Don Johnson) in her sights.

She used to know him 40 years before and there’s still a spark between them. While she remains defensive and wary about long-term commitment, she hints that she might let him tickle her arm (for her, the ultimate sign of intimacy).

Keaton’s Vivian, who has a fear of flying, somehow lands in the lap of Mitchell (Andy Garcia) on a journey to Arizona. He turns out to be a pilot… and an old smoothie to boot. Bergen’s uptight judge starts online dating.

In one of the film’s best scenes, she hooks up for dinner with George (Richard Dreyfuss), an equally reserved accountant/tax adviser type. In no time at all, they shed their inhibitions and start making out on the back seat of a car like horny teenagers on prom night.

Steenburgen resorts first to dance lessons and then to viagra to pep up her comically morose and droopy husband, whose motorbike won’t start and seems to have erectile dysfunction as a result. He snores. She watches box sets on TV. After 35 years of marriage and three kids, she doesn’t turn him on anymore.

Some of the humour here is of the Benny Hill variety. Late on, we have some excruciating scenes of Nelson walking around with what looks like a flagpole sticking out of his trousers, bumping into the furniture as he waits for the effects of the viagra to wear off.

Lines like “It sounds like we have a lethargic pussy on our hands” don’t encourage confidence. The filmmakers fill the soundtrack with cheesy pop songs (Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” or Roxy Music’s “More Than This” or Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love”).

Watching Book Club is an up-and-down experience. The four female leads are either Oscar winners or Oscar nominees and they know just how to play to the camera. A few of the episodes are funny and well observed. Others are so toe-curling and embarrassing you want to avert your eyes and hide under the seat.

Inevitably, in the last third, the sauciness abates and is replaced instead by a drippy sentimentality. Some of the younger actors in the supporting cast have a very hard time of it. For example, Alicia Silverstone, who used to be a star in her own right, has an utterly thankless role as Keaton’s scolding, interfering, busybody daughter.

At least, the old folk seem to be enjoying themselves. After so many dubious films featuring men of a certain age up to mischief it’s only fair that the women should be allowed to do likewise. One prediction can very safely be made, though. When critics look back at the high points in the glittering careers of Fonda, Keaton et al, Book Club is a movie they will leap over as quickly as possible.

Book Club hits UK cinemas on 1 June.