Despite Ample Star Power, ‘Book Club’ Could Use a Rewrite

Book Club

When you see hundreds of movies a year for a living, you develop little quirks about the old-fashioned storytelling devices you still enjoy. My favorite is the faked old photo.

I genuinely love when two stars are onscreen talking about something that supposedly happened to their characters 30 years ago. And one of them will pull out a snapshot and there are the actors but younger, their vintage headshots Photoshopped into some newly-manufactured picture.

It’s a tiny thing but it makes me smile. So I was very happy during the long lead-in to “Book Club,” when the opening showed us our four leading ladies in various moments from different decades – ’60s and ’70s Jane Fonda and Candice Bergen, ’70s and ’80s Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen – all melded together into faux group candids.

It was cute and it was nostalgic and it was fun.

And then the real movie started, and things started to go downhill.

The film is a sort of updated “Golden Girls” about four greying friends (although only one of them, played by the perpetually lovely Keaton, has actually decided to embrace her silver hair). They live in sunny California, and meet regularly for too much wine and a little literary discussion.

This month’s book: “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

That subject matter leads to some shocks. Also some serious self-examination. So the widowed Keaton and long-divorced Bergen decide to start dating again. The sexually active – OK, overactive – Fonda rekindles her one, old, serious romance. And Steenburgen tries to heat up a decidedly luke-warm marriage.

Jane Fonda in Book Club

This could be fun, or should be. At least the movie takes a few baby steps towards casting equality.

Tired of films where some 70-year-old leading man is paired with a 42-year-old woman? Well, “Book Club” doesn’t go quite that far in redressing the imbalance. But it’s a little gratifying to see Keaton, 72, get the 62-year-old Andy Garcia as a love interest. Or to see the 80-year-old Fonda snuggling up to Don Johnson, 68. You go, girls!

No, it doesn’t make up for all those big Hollywood movies where the male star seems to be dating his granddaughter, but it’s a start. And it’s also nice that Fonda’s character freely admits to having nips and tucks, and that Bergen’s isn’t ashamed of having put on a few pounds. “I like to eat,” she says. And she still looks chic.

But the film itself, while harmless, isn’t particularly funny. Some of the jokes – really, another Viagra overdose gag? – are just corny. Others are more like ideas for jokes – situations that never develop, characters that go nowhere.

First-time director Bill Holderman – a long-time producer for Robert Redford – doesn’t stage scenes in particularly interesting ways, either. The settings are cramped and the photography looks cheap. The product placement is a little too obvious and the soundtrack too clumsily crammed with mainstream, old-school rock.

Nor is the script particularly lively. It’s true that romantic comedies are predictable. (So are action movies – it’s just that most male critics pick on the rom-coms.) But this film feels absolutely programmed – conflicts are forced and then neatly solved, characters are carefully pigeonholed (a wife, a divorcee, a widow, a single) and every female star gets at least one love scene and one good speech.

Of course it’s terrific to see these women again. As an actress, Bergen seems particularly game for anything (including some mildly funny backseat lovemaking with Richard Dreyfuss). And even in her 70s, Keaton still holds onto – oh, la-di-da, la-di-da – a bit of the irrepressible Annie Hall.

And there are so few movies with big roles for women – let alone four big roles, and for women over 60 – it can feel a little churlish not to try and support one that at least tries. But when the best part of a film is pictures of its stars in other films, you know you’re coasting on nostalgia.

And they, and we, deserve better.

For a look at Stephen Witty’s preview of summer blockbusters, don’t miss: Summer Movie Preview 2018: Beyond Superheroes and Star Wars.