‘Book Club’ Review: Turn the Page on This ‘Embarrassing’ Comedy

2 stars (out of 4)

If you read all the Fifty Shades of Grey books seven years ago and thought to yourself, “I can’t wait until someone makes a movie about four senior women who get their romance lives turned upside down by all these naughty sexual exploits!” then I’ve got some good news and bad news for you. Book Club is here to satisfy your needs. Alas, the comedy is staler than your grandma’s Christmas fruit cake.

It’s not that the divine Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen, Jane Fonda and Candice Bergen — who have four Oscars and five Emmys between them — are phoning it in on their rotary devices. The actresses are clearly having a ball playing smart, successful women that still want it all in their golden years. And snap! They’re all iPhone-savvy. They’re just saddled with embarrassing material unbefitting of their considerable talents. I can’t decide the exact low point, but I’m leaning toward a scene in which Steenburgen tap dances on a stage at a community theater to Meatloaf’s “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).”

Book Club
Book Club Paramount Pictures

As Keaton narrates it in the prologue, they’ve all been friends for decades. Vivian (Fonda) is a hotel magnate who enjoys fly-by-night relationships. Sharon (Bergen), a judge, still feels burned by her divorce. Carol (Steenburgen) wants to get back the spark with her husband. And Diane (Keaton) is a sensible recent widow after 40 years of marriage. In Golden Girls terms, Vivian is Blanche; Sharon is Sophia; Diane is Dorothy and Carol is Rose. They all get together on the regular for their book club meetings. Vivian was not fond of the last pick, i.e., the “boring hiking book,” i.e., Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and wants to spice things up.

Her pick: E.L. James’ kinky 2011 bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey, in which nubile college grad Anastasia Steele falls for brooding, S&M-obsessed Seattle billionaire Christian Grey. He ties her up in the Red Room, makes her sign a contract, sex etc., sex etc. That’s a limp one-note premise as is, but in any sensible story arc, these women would read the book as a lark and then rant about the cheese-puff dialogue and hackneyed plot over some vino. Maybe they’d even concoct a senior’s guide to love and sell the movie rights.

Instead, they pore over the Fifty Shades as if it’s a Talmudic scroll. Same for the two crap sequels! And Anastasia’s exploits serve a catalyst for their respective sexual awakenings. In a series of staged and clumsy bits, Vivian gets it on with her ex (Don Johnson), Diane starts dating a pilot (Andy Garcia), Carol attempts to get the spark back with her husband (Craig T. Nelson), and Sharon puts herself on an online site and has sex on the first date in a car with a balding accountant (Richard Dreyfuss). The women spew more eye-rolling puns than the entire Season Four of Sex & The City. Most of the men are lecherous lotharios and nearly as creepy as Christian Grey himself. With every contrived Meet Cute, I imagined the great Nancy Meyers banging the pots in her spacious kitchen out of frustration.

There’s nothing more disheartening then seeing classy women behave like screeching buffoons. Is it an age thing? Perhaps. A pratfall into a swimming pool is a lazy laugh, whether it’s Rebel Wilson or Diane Keaton doing the splatting. Still, I strongly believe Fonda didn’t expose corruption at a nuclear plant in 1979’s The China Syndrome just to literally chase after the man who played Sonny Crockett — whose daughter, Dakota Johnson, was Anastasia in the Fifty Shades movie trilogy! — 39 years later. (Though it’s equally sad that her costar Michael Douglas is now stuck with Grumpy Old Geezer fare like Last Vegas.) The laughs here are painfully unfunny and unoriginal, and these legends should not have to be reduced to selling them. These women rarely even take a time out to discuss books!

What a wasted opportunity. I welcome any summer movie featuring well-educated and bawdy female characters as an alternative to wise-ass superheroes. There’s room at the Cineplex for everyone, including women with fifty shades of naturally gray hair. But a purported sparkling romantic comedy with a glint in its eye needs to bring the sparkle. And a film like Book Club doesn’t do anyone any favors. See it and weep.

Book Club opens in theaters on Friday, May 18.

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