50 Shades of Stardom

‘Book Club’ Is the Superhero Movie Event of the Summer

Show me superpowers greater than the acting talents of Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen assembled in one movie. The question is: Will anyone watch?

Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Pictures

Marvel took a bit of an internet ribbing when it touted Avengers: Infinity War as the “most ambitious crossover event in history,” a communing of superheroes and A-list stars with the collective superpower to take cash directly from moviegoers’ wallets. Oodles of it, it turns out: the film is projected to make another $30 million this weekend, adding to its $552 million domestic haul.

Another meeting of comic book fan favorites will dethrone the caucus of Marvel mainstays this weekend: Deadpool 2, which introduces antihero Cable (Josh Brolin) as Ryan Reynolds’ frenemy in crime-fighting.

This is to be expected, yes, but it is an injustice to another gathering of superheroes taking place this weekend, a convocation of icons the likes of which have never before been assembled on screen. Friends, the movie event of the summer is Book Club.

Are we being slightly hyperbolic about this film, in which friends played by Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen are scandalized when 50 Shades of Grey becomes their 40-year-strong book club’s pick of the month? Yes, but only insofar as fawning over these actresses with four Oscars, 12 Golden Globes, six Emmys, and nearly 290 credits between them can be considered overkill, let alone the degree to which seeing the four legends on screen together brings a person joy.

The idea of launching this movie against Deadpool 2 and Infinity War this weekend is, of course, to offer it up as counter-programming catered to older audiences, female audiences, and the gays who pray at the alters of this quartet of Strong Older Women. (Consider me a missionary of the latter. Have you accepted Jane Fonda as your personal lord and savior?)

You couldn’t signal a more whiplash-inducing 180 from the ka-pows of popcorn blockbusters than by literally naming a movie Book Club.

But the reason I keep comparing the film to these superhero movies is that Book Club, albeit in its own way, is a monumental cinematic event.

This is a wide-release film, opening in nearly 3,000 theaters, starring four women all over the age 65, in which they talk frankly about their sex lives. This isn’t Sex and the City: Granny Edition, or Grandmas Gone Wild, or any other cheeky quip it’s too easy to reduce the film to because of its logline. Yes, older women examine their lives—specifically their love lives—after reading 50 Shades of Grey. The punchline writes itself.

But while this is certainly meant to be a broad comedy, that these women discuss and have sex isn’t a punchline. The film examines the ways in which people, especially women, lose hold of desire, pleasure, and even the very idea of their right to love—and, yes, sex—as they get older. It’s a film about friendship as much as it is about sex. Tonally, it actually resembles Golden Girls more than anything else, should we need a reminder of how rare it is for women of a certain age to be given dignified personal lives in comedy.

Our question is: How will audiences react to this?

It’s not that women over 60 aren’t able to carry a movie or woo older audiences to the cineplex. Meryl Streep is one of the last remaining true movie stars who can turn a film profitable based on her involvement alone, boasting star-power so impressive that she launched a movie musical of ABBA songs into a franchise. And speaking of franchises, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’s gathering of the elder statesmen and women of British cinema could be considered an inspiration for Book Club.

An apt comparison may be to the films of Nancy Meyers, a director whose fetish for open-kitchen porn and draping summer cardigans is unrivaled—not to mention her almost singular ability to craft a romantic comedy centered around a woman of a certain age that is blanketed with nuance and humanity. It’s a fair comparison, but one that also sells Book Club a bit short.

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By no means are we saying that the rom-com, which will be thoroughly enjoyed by many while nursing hangovers from a couch many Sundays from now as it plays on TBS or E! or Lifetime, is in the same league as Meyers’s best work, films like Something’s Gotta Give or It’s Complicated.

This isn’t Sex and the City: Granny Edition, or Grandmas Gone Wild, or any other cheeky quip it’s too easy to reduce the film to because of its logline.

Those films were star vehicles for Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep, respectively, who shined in rich, layered, and, yes, funny lead roles tailored to showcase their talents. What’s special about Book Club is that it’s not just giving Keaton, or Fonda, or Steenburgen, or Bergen the role, the only role. (And, really, when was the last time Candice Bergen got the role?) It’s that these four women are all in this movie together. They all have the role, and they’re acting against each other.   

By this point you may be under the impression that Book Club is some sort of comedic masterpiece. That it is not, though it is a ton of fun, has a steady beating heart, and, should it need to be said, delivers exceptional showcases for its four formidable stars.

Early reviews are polite, if not ecstatic, which sounds about right. A bit of the scripting reads a little lazily—would you believe that Keaton plays a stammering, kooky spirit?—and while the batting average of sex-related puns is hardly all-star worthy, the ones that connect fly out of the park.

Yet there’s something relaxing about Bill Holderman’s unfussy direction, letting the camera sort of linger on these fine actresses for long takes. That becomes luxurious since, as the film wears on, it mostly becomes a cobbled-together series of soliloquies as the leads have various epiphanies, wax poetic about the past, or gain clarity about the futures they’ve been failing to launch. (Bergen’s big moment, especially, delivers.) It’s an antidote to the epileptic chaos of the summer’s other major releases. Let icons be icons. It’s called acting, sweetie.

There are undue pressures we put on movies that thrust women and unconventional leads to the forefront, especially when those movies are billed as events. (OK, we may be doing that more enthusiastically than Paramount is, but the point remains the same.)

We would love nothing more than to see more films like Book Club. Sure, maybe a little sharper, but bright, big-swinging, broadly appealing comedies that let the industry’s greatest actresses, far from through their best years of performing, let loose together onscreen. So-so reviews and a predicted middling box office have us worried that Book Club might be the only chance.

That the all-female Ghostbusters performed merely fine with critics and audiences nearly got women banished from Hollywood altogether, or at least you would think so while reading reactions to it.

Each time Amy Schumer or Melissa McCarthy opens a movie that doesn’t break box-office records, thinkpiece hysteria ensues about the value of their brands moving forward.

You can already sense nerves in the industry over what the future will hold if the upcoming Ocean’s 8 doesn’t live up to everyone’s exceptionally high expectations.

And, for all our joking earlier about the Book Club leads being superheroes, the fact remains that there are too few actual female superhero movies so far to hang all the future’s hopes and dreams on. But, at the very least, we have this. Sign us up for the sequel.