The advanced screening of Book Club was buzzing with infectious excitement. My longtime friend and colleague Evan Dossey and I sat down between two ladies giddily fidgeting in their seats. They were eager to see fellow women of a certain age on the big screen.
The film stars Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen as four lifelong friends who experience a sexual and romantic reawakening when they spice up their monthly book club by reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Fortunately, director Bill Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms don’t linger too long on the book’s subject matter. They use it simply as a catalyst to explore the women’s hopes and desires as they slowly draw closer to their twilight years.
None of the characters get short shrift. Each woman faces a compelling issue: Vivian (Fonda) finds her cold exterior melting away as she falls for an old flame (Don Johnson); Sharon (Bergen) returns to the dating scene after 18 years; and Carol (Steenburgen) struggles to reignite the spark in her marriage as her husband (Craig T. Nelson) wrestles with redefining his identity after retirement.
The subplot involving Keaton’s character (also named Diane) struck a particularly powerful chord with me and a woman seated to my right. Diane is a widow with two daughters (Katie Aselton and Alicia Silverstone) whose concern for her borders on ageism. They treat her like a delicate flower, forbidding her from taking the escalator at the mall to prevent her from falling. Little do they know she is diving into an adventurous affair with a pilot named Mitchell (Andy Garcia).
As her daughters pressure her to settle into the sunset of her life, Diane begins to grow fearful of throwing caution to the wind and running off with Mitchell.
“It’s OK to be happy,” he reminds her.
From the corner of my eye, I caught the woman next to me smiling at this moment. Shortly before the screening, she told us that, like Diane, she lost her husband a year ago and now finds herself at the mercy of her worried children. Seeing her life mirrored on screen seemed to fill her with happiness. The film washed over her with warm familiarity, and she let out hearty laughs of recognition. It was a beautiful display of art imitating life and providing catharsis.
As I watched her, I thought of my mother, who is also adjusting to growing older and starting new chapters in her life that she never expected. I imagine she would also find joy and relief in watching these beloved actors breathe new life into the theme of aging and making discoveries in one’s golden years.
By the way, this is a superbly acted ensemble comedy. Each star makes their character’s fear and frustration our own as they timidly traverse the battlefield of love. They also ground their actions in reality, carrying out romantic gestures in a charmingly clunky manner. No one gracefully sprints after their soulmate in an airport or shouts from a rooftop about the love of their life. Even in a dance scene near the end, the film reminds us that these people’s moves are rusty. But they tear up the stage anyway. It’s a touching example of how romance is a bit scary, silly and awkward but still well worth pursuing. Best of all, the characters pursue it on their own terms, not out of any societal pressure.
Hilarious and heartfelt, Book Club is the kind of film that sends you out into the night with a smile on your face and a tingle of comfort up your spine. It’s like a hug from an old friend. As my buddy Evan and I like to say after we’ve seen something sweet and well-meaning, “it’s delightful.”