Much has been made of the ages of the actresses whose sparkling performances helped turned 2018’s “Book Club” into a bona fide box office hit, but very little has been noted about the ages of the film’s primary actors — Craig T. Nelson, Don Johnson and Andy Garcia.
The ladies — Diane Keaton (now 77), Jane Fonda (86 in December), Candice Bergen (77) and Mary Steenburgen (70) — are back for the sequel, “Book Club: The Next Chapter,” as are the men. Joining the primary cast is Italy’s Giancarlo Giannini, who became famous internationally starring in nine movies made by Italian director Lina Wertmuller, including a series of 1970s art house favorites.
Justice must be served; therefore, Nelson is 79, Johnson will be 74 in December, Garcia is 67, and Giannini will be 81 in August.
In “Book Club,” Keaton, Fonda, Bergen, and Steenburgen play a group of friends who meet for a monthly book club, reading mostly classics. That film focuses on a desire to shake things up, thus the women decide to read the erotic romance “Fifty Shades Of Grey.” The movie is fresh, funny, and delivered one of the biggest audience laughs I’d ever heard in a movie theater. Truth be told, the you-know-what in the kitchen earned the loudest reaction for me since 2006’s “Borat.”
There’s nothing in “Book Club: The Next Chapter” that reaches that peak. In fact, the film exists as a pleasant diversion. It falters a touch because of the ordinary direction by Bill Holderman and the uninspired screenplay he co-wrote with Erin Simms — the same credits they earned on “Book Club.” The new film succeeds as well as it does because of Diane (who plays Diane, which is still an annoying aspect), Jane (who’s Vivian), Candice (Sharon), and Mary (Carol).
The wonderful actresses are consummate professionals, all of whom know how to crisply deliver their dialogue and are capable of squeezing whatever comedy may exist in a specific line. Regrettably, there are not a lot of strong comic lines in the film. I laughed a little, and I smiled a lot, but not always. There are sections that drag and some unfortunate moments of repetition. “Book Club: The Next Chapter” isn’t a failure by any stretch of the imagination, but Holderman and Simms allowed some laziness to creep in. Clearly they also thought the ladies would save the day, which they do, up to a point.
The friends have been holding their in-person book club meetings since 1973, but the pandemic prevented this from happening. For a number of years, as we learn through a peppy prologue, they’ve met through Zoom, just as you probably did with your family and friends.
After it’s decreed that the pandemic is over, the women prepare to get together. When they finally meet up, they have the happy, but weird, experience of getting used to their friends as physical beings, not on-screen pixels. It’s a clever sequence.
What they’re reading before the movie stops being about books is “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. The 1988 novel is about dreams and travel and before you can say “situation comedy,” the women decide — with some prodding for the uncertain among them — that they’ll go to Italy for a bachelorette party to celebrate the fact that Vivian is getting married to Arthur (played by Johnson).
On the travel agenda is a trip to Rome, which will diverge, because of the suggestion of a stranger, with a trip to Venice, and then everything will culminate with Viv’s wedding in Tuscany.
Throughout the Italian idyll, reading books is forgotten. We have the usual parade of cinematic situations: lost luggage, the montage of gorgeous wedding dresses, new possibilities of love, especially for retired judge Sharon, the wedding planner’s ability to adapt to every changing whim, and the women spending a night in jail after getting arrested. This latter incident is where Giannini fits in. He plays an elderly Venetian policeman who has never retired. These are the conflicts that guide the audience to the alluring wedding venue.
The cinematography from Andrew Dunn is, as it needs to be, absolutely beautiful, especially in Italy. Although, there is less of an emphasis on images of food than what we usually get in films. I’ve been to Italy a number of times, including to Rome, Venice, and Florence, and I have friends with a gorgeous villa in Tuscany. One year, we rented a car, and I’ve driven in Florence and into the Tuscan countryside and hills, but I’ve never seen the city and Tuscany from the spectacular point-of-view of a flyover with a drone as is delivered in the movie.
What you’ll discover when you see “Book Club: The Next Chapter,” which is only playing in theaters, is that ultimately not much happens. The story is as thin as a shaved white truffle.
The film can be enjoyed as an utterly delightful travelogue. Your overall reaction will depend on how you relate to Diane, Vivian, Sharon and Carol, who, by the way plays the song “Gloria” on the accordion. Steenburgen is a life-long accordionist.
Lost luggage and getting arrested included, the biggest “story” incident to me was the house of mirrors wedding ceremony, with its multiple surprises, which tends to run longer than it should because of something to do with the concept of women either wanting to get married or not wanting to get married. There were tin cans attached to a sports car, but its forward motion is stopped.
What message there is seems to be to take advantage of a joyous opportunity when it presents itself. There is no doubt that romantic Italy lends an aura of enchantment to the proceedings, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
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