In “Book Club,” four older women choose an unlikely title for their monthly group-read: "Fifty Shades of Grey,” book one in E.L. James' sadomasochistic romance trilogy. With its explicit scenes of dungeon kink, the book re-awakens dormant libidos and leads the women into various sexual and romantic misadventures. The lesson, of course, is that even late life is never too late for love.
What makes “Fifty Shades of Grey” such an unlikely selection? Just that these female characters are played by some of the best actresses around — Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen — and seem far too intelligent to endure more than a few pages of James’ artless ode to female passivity. Watching these women run hungry eyes over James’ blindingly bad prose breaks the spell of believability, which is important even in a rom-com as trifling as this.
The film’s heroines, based in Los Angeles, are four clear archetypes. Keaton plays Diane, a widow whose grown daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) have prematurely decided she is a doddering granny in need of constant care. Carol (Steenburgen) is a high-end chef who worries about her distant husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson). Sharon, played by a needle-sharp Bergen, is nevertheless a confusing character, a federal judge still stinging from a divorce she seemed to initiate. Fonda, that 1960s firebrand, is a slightly obvious choice to play the sexually active but noncommittal Vivian.
The bad news is that “Book Club,” written by Erin Simms and first-time director Bill Holderman, is filled with cliches and innuendo that wouldn’t be out of place in a James novel. The naughty metaphors are ancient, the sight gags obvious. It’s only a matter of time before Sharon slips Bruce a Viagra pill, leading to an embarrassing confrontation with a female police officer.
The good news is that the leading men here are pretty good, too. Andy Garcia lays on the charm as an airline pilot who pursues a flustered Diane; the men in Sharon’s life are a comedic trifecta of Richard Dreyfuss, Wallace Shawn and Ed Begley Jr.; and Don Johnson, coincidentally the father of “Fifty Shades of Grey” star Dakota Johnson, is terrific as Arthur, the guy that Vivian once let get away.
Throughout the movie, the women quote and analyze Shakespeare and Robert Frost, constantly raising the question of how their taste sank as low as “Fifty Shades.” Amazingly, they read all three books in the trilogy.