Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen in Book Club (Photo: Paramount)

★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Bill Holderman
STARS Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda

Diane Keaton will forever remain one of my favorite actresses, thanks primarily to her superb performances in Annie Hall (for which she won an Oscar) and Reds (for which she should have won a second Oscar). Jane Fonda is another screen legend, mesmerizing in such works as Klute and The China Syndrome. Candice Bergen was a slow starter, enduring critical razzies for her early film work before scoring with Starting Over and, of course, TV’s Murphy Brown. And who doesn’t love Mary Steenburgen, who’s been charming audiences for decades in such efforts as Melvin and Howard and Back to the Future Part III?

As has become the norm these days (see also Last Vegas, Going in Style, etc.), all these screen legends have been brought together not for an instant classic that deserves all the awards but for a frothy comedy that, frankly, is far beneath their collective talents. Yet bless them all for signing those contracts. Without such a high-caliber cast, there would be very little reason to see Book Club. But because these actresses are involved, the picture marginally works as a showcase for their respective screen personas.

Diane (Keaton) is recently widowed and has to contend with two misguided if well-meaning daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) who treat her as if she’s already got one foot in the grave. Vivian (Fonda) is a hotel owner whose endless string of one-night stands allows her to keep her guard up and never get emotionally close to anybody. Sharon (Bergen) is a divorced federal judge who hasn’t had sex in 18 years (a discussion of Werner Herzog films leads someone to crack that her vagina is a “cave of forgotten dreams”). And Carol (Steenburgen) has long been married to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), but these days, he’s more interested in fondling his newly restored motorcycle than his wife’s body.

These four women meet monthly for their book club, and since the latest novel (selected by Vivian) to be digested is Fifty Shades of Grey, they all find themselves heavily thinking about sex and refusing to let their aged libidos go to waste. Diane hooks up with a dashing pilot (Andy Garcia). Vivian runs into Arthur (Don Johnson), the one she let get away decades earlier. Sharon joins the Bumble dating site and meets the charming George (Richard Dreyfuss). And Carol tries to figure out how to seduce her inattentive husband.

One sure sign of a desperate comedy is the inclusion of a Viagra joke, and writer-director Bill Holderman (scripting with Erin Simms) lamentably makes sure that such a gag receives the spotlight in a painfully protracted scene. Indeed, much of the humor is smarmy and self-satisfied, and most of the rom-com relationships are strictly boilerplate. Nevertheless, the film makes some salient points about society’s irrational insistence on negating the continued aspirations of its senior members (particularly in regards to sex and love), and it’s a pleasure watching all these pros in action. Bergen is especially a delight, as her character is gifted the lion’s share of the best wisecracks.

Male members like Dreyfuss and Garcia hold up their end, although it’s the scenes in which the women interact with each other that provide the largest charges. Clearly, these tailor-made parts don’t require these actresses to stretch even one finger, but they enjoy an ingratiating and easy-going camaraderie, particularly in the precious few scenes in which they actually discuss literature. Fifty Shades of Grey, Wild and Moby-Dick are the books showcased here; perhaps the sequel will allow us to hear their opinions on Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Nabokov’s Lolita, and the entire Twilight oeuvre.

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