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'Book Club': Can Be Judged From Its Cover

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic
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The grist and gist of the pleasantly engaging but no-great-shakes "Book Club," directed by Bill Holderman and starring four of our national treasures, reminded me of an informing moment a few years back. My wife, Joanne, and I were driving across the Neversink River in the Catskills just as Mick Jagger and that band of his came over the radio. It was "Jumping Jack Flash" that stirred me to opine, "Can you imagine if someday we're in the old age home and the Rolling
Stones visit to entertain us?" Her answer surprised me.
 
"Cool!" said my co-veteran of the Hippy Era, the resilience therein implied brightening the picture I had conjured. 
 
Instead of hobbling, cane-assisted or worse, to the Activities Room, or wherever it was, if I could find it, there we were up front, face-to-face with Keith Richards and exchanging knowing looks about our legacy and, for all intents and purposes, still going strong. I think I then popped the trans into neutral and revved the engine as an exclamatory amen to the ray of sunshine Joanne had proposed. "Book Club" hearteningly traffics in that same optimism.
 
While the film about a quatrain of gals who've been pals since their salad days won't lead its intended audience to that which eluded Ponce de León, it might temporarily divert one from the aches and concerns of the senior experience ... a philosophical steroid shot, if you will. Just don't expect anything particularly profound or artistically creative. Featuring completely honest packaging, we are assured that Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen will charm us and, as advertised, try to convince us that life begins at 60.
 
Thus, while we are amazed at their pulchritude, with special awe reserved for Fonda's unfathomable shape and visage, more demanding viewers will bemoan the dearth of a good script. But there's a tragic dilemma inherent in that desire. Any art house-type meandering could cast an uncongenial reality, and thus thwart the movie's starry-eyed purpose.
 
With no writing gamble ventured, Holderman's script, co-authored with Erin Simms, is an off-the-shelf template, dusted off for contemporary usage. Peer hard and you'll discern the DNA of several lady buddy-buddy films, from "Stage Door" (1937) to "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953). So OK, it works, with no characters' egos harmed or killed during the filming. Yet if just a touch of the brilliance writers Anita Loos and Jane Murfin exhibited in "The Women" (1939) were achieved, I'd be extolling "Book Club" for its cleverness and not just its goodwill.
 
Hence, after brief bios denote the successfulness of each principal, occasionally witty dialogue gives us the real skinny. While Fonda's Vivian, a hotel mogul, enjoys her masculine company with no more emotional strings attached than is required when ordering room service, Diane Keaton's much more reserved widow is hesitant to search anew for male companionship. Separated federal judge Sharon, played by Candice Bergen, is equally prim. And Carol (Mary Steenburgen), well, her husband (Craig T. Nelson) won't discuss their problem with his doctor.
 
Now, you know full well that one-by-one, each of our damsels in fretfulness is destined to wind up in at least a better place, if not perfectly fulfilled, by the closing credits. Don't be angry with me. Giving away the conclusion of "Sleeping Beauty" or any other fable wouldn't draw your ire.
 
After all, that's what this movie's ticket implies — a predictable tour through the challenges of impinging old age, handled with all the celebration and serendipitous cheer of a Disney ride. No siree, these winners didn't come three score and then some just to cry uncle in the sixth inning.
 
In short, they are all still pretty, witty and wise: veritable, living commercials for plastic surgery, ginkgo biloba, and regular gym attendance. And while lip service is paid to the financial independence they've apparently achieved, the devout feminist will doubtlessly point out that at the end of the day, their success and happiness, ostensibly one and the same, hinges on their everlasting ability to attract the male animal. Still, when Keaton's reserved Diane is wooed by Andy Garcia's Prince Charming disguised as a rich airline pilot, it is awfully romantic.
 
Like a great baseball team intent on marching to the World Series, this pie-in-the-sky fantasy spares no expense in the talent department. While the likable, all-star cast, which even features a few brand-name actors in cameo stints, can't imbue the work with any sense of realism, pooh-poohing this convivial, welcome basket of positivism would be akin to being angry that cartoon animals can talk. Plus, being issue-oriented, especially when the film in question makes no such pretense, is overreaching. "Book Club" can best be enjoyed if you don't read too much into it.
 
"Book Club," rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Bill Holderman and stars Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton and Candice Bergen. Running time: 104 minutes
 

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