Should there be a rule surrounding sequels requiring the first film to be in any way, shape, or form to be memorable? Walking into Book Club: The Next Chapter, I realized that I had no idea what the first film was about. I knew I’d seen it, and I knew it vaguely had to do with Academy Award-nominated actresses Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen reading Fifty Shades of Grey (already far too late for even the movies’ craze), yet I couldn’t remember a single detail about the plot.
Hell, even when this film reintroduced threads and ideas, I couldn’t remember the plot. Whether or not that lack of knowledge helps or hinders The Next Chapter is up for debate, for Bill Holderman’s newest gal-pal outing is the tapioca pudding of its genre: its bland, inoffensive existence may sustain you for its 100-minute runtime, but you’ll forget it shortly after it’s over.
After having their lives reinvigorated by the Fifty Shades trilogy, lifelong gal pals Diane (Keaton), Vivian (Fonda), Sharon (Bergen), and Carol (Steenburgen) continue their monthly book club throughout everything life throws at them, from health scares to new relationships to the pandemic (yep, this is inexplicably a COVID movie). When Vivian gets engaged to her old boyfriend Arthur (Don Johnson), the ladies – inspired by the classic novel The Alchemist – decide to fulfill a lifelong dream and have a bachelorette weekend in Italy. Shenanigans and life lessons ensue.
The problem with Book Club isn’t that the jokes are bad. It’s that they’re lazy. Every joke boils down to some variation of how old these women are, daring audiences to say “Old ladies don’t usually say that!” as if this hasn’t been a source of humor dating back centuries (even Shakespeare had old ladies making irreverent sex puns). All you can think watching it play out is “How dare they make four-time Academy Award-nominee Diane Keaton turn herself into a potato on Zoom? How could they make two-time Academy Award-winner Jane Fonda make a joke about blowing out a mechanical knee during sex?
But it’s not just that the jokes aren’t funny that makes this film such a confusingly dull slog. It’s that they don’t make sense on any level. One big comedic setpiece in the film involves the implication that one of the characters is having an affair, only to reveal that she is, in fact, involved in a baking competition. The problem here is not only that the joke is hackneyed, it’s that the character in question wouldn’t have an affair. Her entire character – and her journey – involves her devotion to her husband. Therefore, we know from the jump that the fakeout is coming, and all we can do is wait for its disappointing punchline.
It’s pretty obvious that the blame lies with the writing by Holderman and Erin Simms, as well as the editing by Andrew Dunn (the scenes so hastily move from one to the next that sometimes punchlines are left unfinished). After all, the women are all putting in varying degrees of effort to make this film work. Well, most of the women. Keaton looks miserable from moment one, as if realizing her career has devolved from New Hollywood icon to “wacky lady who falls down.” And Fonda is noticeably looking for her paycheck in every scene, although she at least tries her best when there’s even a semblance of a monologue to chew on. But Bergen at least treats her role like it’s a sitcom, to modest results, and thanks to an actual storyline, Steenburgen is able to bring her A-game for all its worth.
Admittedly, because the women at the heart of this film are willing to try (mostly), some of the cute silliness actually lands better than others. Mary Steenburgen’s Carol running into her ex-boyfriend (Vincent Riotta) earns a chuckle. An obvious bit involving stolen bags is elevated with the reveal that Keaton’s character has brought her late husband’s ashes, which were stolen in the kerfuffle. And while obvious sex fake-outs in this film mostly don’t work, there is admittedly a very good bit where the women decide that their bachelorette weekend requires “naked men,” only to be shown wandering the halls of a classical art museum making puns and jabs about the statues.
Sadly, any goodwill the actresses earn in the film’s middle act finds itself undone in the finale. The last twenty minutes of this film feel like an hour, with complications and shenanigans adding up to increasingly asinine heights. Characters come to conclusions that either feel unearned or were obvious from the film’s opening five minutes. It is an abysmal finale, made worse by the film’s incremental improvements as it trekked along. Every actress involved – not to mention love interests Don Johnson, Craig T. Nelson, and Andy García – deserve an apology from the writers and directors involved.
Book Club: The Next Chapter is a forgettable enough outing that you’re willing to forgive its excessive shortcomings. I suppose it is just a tragic right of passage. When you’re a failed comedic actor of a certain age, you join Adam Sandler for a Grown Ups movie. When you’ve won an Academy Award, but you’re a woman over the age of 40, you make Book Club or 80 For Brady. It’s tragic, and a sign of the sexism within the industry, but at least these actresses can still crack a smile by putting in one iota of effort. If only the same could be said for the rest of the filmmakers.
Book Club: The Next Chapter will premiere in theaters Friday, May 12th