Book Club review: smutty over-60s Sex And The City should have stayed on the page

Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen in Book Club - © 2018 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen in Book Club - © 2018 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Dir: Bill Holderman. Cast: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Andy Garcia, Craig T Nelson, Don Johnson, Richard Dreyfuss, Wallace Shawn, Alicia Silverstone. 12A cert, 104 mins

The four formidable actresses in Book Club – Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen – certainly know their way around a library. In screen adaptations over 50-odd years, they’ve tackled everything from Ibsen to The Godfather, Sondheim to Jonathan Swift.

Literary debate is not exactly beyond them. Perhaps there’s a higher-brow version of this film you might conceive, where they go a few rounds on phallocentrism in Philip Roth, confess to giving up on Beowulf, or compete, in seniors’-egg-and-spoon-race fashion, to finish the new Alan Hollinghurst.

It’s with eye-widening despair, then, that the realisation dawns: the three books they’re actually going to read in Book Club are Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels.

Fonda’s Vivian, the tireless sexpot of the crew, whips out copies of EL James’s first opus at one of their regular meetings, to various shades of mock horror from the other three. Bergen’s Carol, an uptight, long-divorced judge, is the most appalled. Steenburgen’s Mary, alone among them, is still married, but her bedroom sure could do with a Red-Room-of-Pain-style shake-up. And Keaton’s Diane, the breezy narrator, laughs it all off as embarrassing tat, but then gets swiftly stuck in during a long-haul flight, with Andy Garcia right next to her as a highly eligible potential fling.

Any arching of film buff eyebrows – erm, Keaton’s now dating her daughter’s psychotic beau from The Godfather Part III, is she? – will be accompanied by chronic slack-jaw from the banality of the writing. It’s clear to what model director Bill Holderman (co-credited as screenwriter with Erin Simms) cleaved when they were cooking up the dynamics between these four. It wasn’t the correspondence of the Mitford sisters.

It was Sex and the City, whose weakly smutty formulae and first-draft characterisation the film apes like there’s no tomorrow. Vivian, especially, is so Samantha-esque that Fonda is put in the obligatory position of doing a leopard-print-leotards-at-the- ready Kim Cattrall routine. Whatever fabulous nick she’s in, that can’t be what anyone was particularly waiting for.

The men are all preposterously wealthy, only slightly paunchy dreamboats with golden-girl-shaped holes in their semi-retirement. Silver surfers are a mere Bumble click away for the depressed Bergen, who lines up dates with Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn while keeping her court in recess.

Diane Keaton and Andy Garcia in Book Club
Diane Keaton and Andy Garcia in Book Club

The only actors who achieve much chemistry are a glowing Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson, as the fatigued husband just gagging to have Viagra slipped in his whisky glass. An unabashedly romantic late scene involving these two, when she tap-dances at a benefit and he joins her smitten on stage, cements their claim to be best in show.

Otherwise, except for one good, weirdly rogue joke about a Werner Herzog documentary, there’s almost nothing to be said for this mouldy old script. Even the basic pleasure of watching a seasoned cast swan around, topping up each other’s rosé glasses in expensive settings, speedily pales when you hear what they have to say.

Frustratingly, there’s a great deal of romantic-comic potential in the love lives of over-60s, as Meryl Streep has proved in some of her sunnier vehicles – Hope Springs or It’s Complicated, say. But this film manages to assemble a virtual Infinity War of Streep’s spikiest Hollywood contemporaries – inspired comedians right down the batting order – and barely even passes the Bechdel Test.