Sunday, 2 September 2018

Book Club (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: For the past thirty years, best friends Diane (Diane Keaton), Vivian (Jane Fonda), Sharon (Candice Bergen) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) have met up every month for book club. One month, they choose Fifty Shades Of Grey as their book, and as they read on, they find themselves questioning where they are in life and love and whether they're going to do something about it.

Cue massive sigh of relief from yours truly that this part of the review isn’t just another obituary for the dignity of older actors. Keaton as the resigned mother has her in prime form, imbuing her more romantic scenes with a rather infectious spring in her step. I’m sure that acting opposite Andy García in one of his smoothest performances of late didn’t hurt. Fonda as the archetypal strong independent woman, aside from marking the second film of hers I’ve reviewed that just had to bring up her cosmetic surgery, manages a solid balancing act between the liberation her life affords her, but also the isolating setbacks of thinking that she’s at her strongest when she stays alone. Don Johnson as her old flame honestly makes for one of the limper performances in the cast here, so in a way, I can see her point.
Bergen as the judge trying to get back into the dating scene hits a lot of the bigger points regarding older love with laser-guided poise, and even though context gets in the way of things, hearing her talk about what her inner goddess is doing? It works better than it has any right to. Ed Begley Jr. as her ex-husband sets the groundwork for the film’s most emotional moment, and his chemistry with Bergen is pretty solid on top of that. And then there’s Steenburgen as the frustrated romantic, who is definitely hindered by the framing of her character but still adds a healthy amount to the main group dynamic. Bonus points for Craig T. Nelson’s work as her husband, who makes for probably the most realistic depiction of an older gentleman this film has to offer.
Between writer/director Bill Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms, there’s not a whole lot of scripting experience between them. I’ve been making a bit of a habit of saying this in reviews of late but, once again, that lack of experience shows in the final product. Don’t get me wrong, the dialogue lands on the right side of earnest with how the main four interact with each other, but… okay, let’s just cut to the chase: This script should have toned it down on the sexual innuendos. Like, it is kind of astounding just how many metaphors for sex were squeezed into this writing, to the point where the film itself had to point it out when Sharon says “enough with the metaphors!” It can get quite cringey, not helped by the rather clichéd soundtrack picks that they are set against at certain points. I don’t know how you can make Charlie Puth’s Marvin Gaye any less sexy than it already is, but when put in a film where it seems like any remotely-phallic object in the background was put there for all of one reason, this film managed it.
But with that said, as far as looking at female sexuality from an older perspective, this feels like it taps into some worthy topics. Topics like how getting older isn’t an absolute guarantee that a woman will lose interest in sex, or that want for affection and romantic love doesn’t die at that stage either, or that how younger people treat older people can be a tad patronising in how they always assume the worst. I will not pretend that I am in either the age demographic or even the right sex to be able to relate to stuff like this, but part of going out to see movies that aren’t made for me ends up forcing me to try and empathise with people who would find something appealing in this. And honestly, I totally get it. It treats the sex lives of the main characters pretty much beat-for-beat how they would be treated in a film with passing-for-teenaged actors, with how it portrays dating and social anxieties related to dating. Between the main four, the story ends up covering a lot of ground with how many different varieties of “I’m sexually frustrated and I need to do something about it” we get over the course of 100 minutes and change.
Shame that the plot had to be kick-started by introducing our characters to the increasingly fucked-up world of Fifty Shades to get to that point. Now, to a degree, I actually get why that particular book was chosen; I’m still amazed at how many times I’ve seen older women reading Fifty Shades Of Grey on the bus, so I get a certain demographic alignment. But then again, having read all three books, having seen all three movies, and having essentially broken up with the series as a whole earlier this year, something about anyone getting sexual ideas from those books is… worrying, to put it lightly. When it got to the point of the women perking themselves up by saying “even Christian Grey fell in love”, my face contorted to the point where I was probably unrecognisable to the human eye.
This is only boosted with what Carol brings to the table, since she ends up being the most infatuated with what’s she’s reading, right down to a pretty excruciating exchange between her and Craig T. Nelson’s Bruce about him tying her up with plastic cable ties. No, that’s not how that works, and quite frankly, that level of misunderstanding about what actually constitutes BDSM is part of the reason I and many others don’t take too kindly to those books. Of course, that scene is still an improvement over her spiking her husband’s beer with Viagra so that they can get their frisk on… only she didn’t tell him that that’s what she’s doing. Why am I not surprised that the one who takes the most liking to Fifty Shades is also the one with the most tenuous understanding of what “consent” is? Granted, the film is at least aware of how wrong that notion is, but even still, the idea that those books could end up giving decent people horrible ideas? Again, part of the reason those books get a lot of flak, and rightfully so.
All in all, while I admit to having quite a few hang-ups about Fifty Shades Of Grey being a main plot point, this honestly isn't that bad. The acting is solid, with Keaton, Fonda, Bergen and Steenburgen all bringing something unique to the proceedings, the production values are pretty good for a first-time director, and while the soundtrack may be too cheesy for its own good, the dialogue can be eye-rolling and that core plot point makes this difficult to like too much, the statements made about older feminine sexuality makes it difficult to hate too much either. Another case of this likely faring better with its target audience than with someone like myself, but looking at the pieces here, you could certainly do a hell of a lot worse regardless.
This ranks higher than Finding Your Feet, as what makes this film worth watching are far more consistent and, even if some of the subject matter is toe-curling of the less-than-pleasant variety, it doesn’t require any greater historical context to get the full effect. In fact, considering its main centrepiece, less context is probably a blessing. However, since this still has some rather unfortunate drawbacks to it, it ranks just below The Polka King, whose own hindrances aren’t nearly as pointed nor as capable of sabotaging the emotional oomph of the story.

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