It’s beyond obvious that women deserve a movie that portrays and celebrates them in their sixties and seventies reveling in the joys of romantic adventure and uninhibited sex. It’s not so obvious that they deserved “Book Club,” the 2018 comedy about four hale, hearty, and prosperous senior friends who read “Fifty Shades of Grey” in their monthly literary white-wine klatsch, only to discover that E.L. James’s S&M princess fantasy jump-starts their hibernating libidos and/or their desire to commit to the men who are courting them. You could use a whole Thesaurus paragraph of withering descriptives to evoke the sort of movie “Book Club” was. It was prefab, it was cookie-cutter, it was paint-by-numbers, it was broad enough to play to the peanut gallery, it was four glorified sitcoms jammed into one overly synthetic package.
And yet…the movie, in its story-parts-falling-into-place-far-too-neatly “Look how bawdy we’re being!” way, allowed its quartet of iconic stars to inject an overly cute and telegraphed scenario with just enough personality and soul to get by. The four women, played by Jane Fonda (hedonistic but emotionally distant hotel owner), Diane Keaton (newly widowed and relationship-shy, with grown daughters who want to move her across the country), Mary Steenburgen (happily married restauranteur, but her husband is a stuffed shirt who’s only getting stuffier), and Candice Bergen (federal judge who hasn’t had a date in 18 years), were like characters in search of a better life, and maybe a better movie. “Book Club” wasn’t a good romantic comedy, exactly; it was almost designed to be a guilty pleasure. Yet like all guilty pleasures that deliver, it exuded a glow of comfortable amusement, and by the end you were glad it existed. It gave voice to thoughts and feelings we need to see more of.
We get to see a lot more of them in “Book Club: The Next Chapter,” though if you’re asking where this sequel can go, given the happy endings that greeted all four characters in the first film, you’d be right to wonder. Fonda’s Vivian, with her chic shag hair and spiky wit to match, had found love with her long-ago paramour, played by a very winning Don Johnson; the two are now set to be married. Keaton’s Diane (yes, that’s the character’s name), with her vibrant anxiety and Annie Hall-at-70 wardrobe, had found love with Andy Garcia’s smiley chivalrous airline pilot Mitchell, and if he seems a bit too good to be true, with his outlandishly picturesque Arizona estate, here’s a formula-movie news flash: He’s still that good!
Steenburgen’s Carol, always the most settled and content of the four, has lost her restaurant in the pandemic’s economic downturn, but she’s fine with that change of life. The real conflict that besets her has to do with her husband, Craig T. Nelson’s crusty old bear Bruce, who has had a heart attack. He came through it fine, but she’s so frightened of losing him that she’s got him on a joyless diet and a general vibe of overprotected severity that’s messing with their mostly idyllic marriage. And Bergen’s Sharon? Having reconnected with her amorous side, she has now retired from the bench, which has left her at loose ends.
These are not exactly situations and conflicts destined to erupt into explosive comic drama. The premise of “The Next Chapter” is that our heroines, after too much hemming and hawing, decide to follow their bliss, live a little dangerously and take a senior bachelorette voyage to Italy, all to celebrate Vivian’s impending wedding. Given the lush Continental setting, you could easily envision a film that was “Eat, Pray, Love” x 4 + 16 added decades of life experience. A kind of seniors-go-wild romantic travelogue meets Katharine Hepburn in “Summertime.”
But once the friends arrive in Italy, “The Next Chapter” turns into a series of staid and unremarkable adventures. The original film reveled in its real-estate porn. This one has location porn (the architectural splendors of Rome, the mystic majesty of Venice, the Edenic tranquility of Tuscany), alcohol porn (late-night rounds of Prosecco and grappa), and, in one shopping sequence, wedding-dress porn. All fine, though none of it quite adds up to a movie.
At a hotel bar, Sharon meets an expatriate retired philosophy professor (Hugh Quarshie), and just as she tapped her inner freak in “Book Club” by having sex in the back of her car, here the two go at it in the back of a water taxi. But it’s just a momentary fling (which feels a bit off; Hugh Quarshie is an appealing enough actor to seem worthy of more permanent placement). At a dinner party thrown as a lush garden restaurant in Venice, Carol learns that the chef (Vincent Riotta) is none other than her old teacher at culinary school. Is there a spark between them? For a moment the movie leads us to believe she might stray, but it’s all squashed by an elaborate version of one of those double-entendre jokes (this one is about “pulling dough”) that the “Book Club” movies can’t get enough of.
It’s all quite wispy and anecdotal, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if Bill Holderman, the director of these films, and Erin Simms, his co-screenwriter and producer, had squeezed more texture into the anecdotes. Remember when writers and directors used to graduate from network television series to the big screen? Holderman and Simms come on like filmmakers who are yearning for the day that they can make a network series. Yet the first rule of “Book Club” is: Never underestimate the cheeky sentimental old-girl-power irresistibility of “Book Club.” When “The Next Chapter” hits that destination wedding, it uncorks a scene that just about makes the whole movie worth it. Vivian pours herself into getting married but in a stubbornly independent way, which is Fonda’s way of winking at her own experience. The scene is more than a cute resolution — it’s about longevity and identity and anxiety and generosity. And love, actually.