If gender equality in Hollywood means giving actresses over the age of 50 the opportunity to tarnish their legacies with the same hackneyed comedic material as their male peers, then to paraphrase a vintage advertising campaign: We’ve come a long way, baby. While some credit can be given to Book Club, Paramount’s new Grace And Frankie-inspired rom-com for women of a certain age, for not treating sex after menopause as freakish and therefore inherently hilarious, that goodwill is ultimately buried under an avalanche of formulaic one-liners and corny innuendo with the sophistication of a gender-swapped Benny Hill skit.
To be fair, there is one excellent Werner Herzog joke—about a Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, naturally—early on in the film. But not 15 minutes later, we’re watching Murphy Brown herself, Candice Bergen, pursing her lips knowingly when a veterinarian asks her if her cat (as the case may be) is suffering from a “lethargic pussy.” That’s the frustrating part about this movie: The cast—whose main ensemble consists of Bergen, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, and Diane Keaton, with Ed Begley Jr., Richard Dreyfuss, Craig T. Nelson, Don Johnson, and Andy Garcia in supporting roles—is uniformly good, as befits an ensemble with five Oscars and seven Emmys between them. But the script is so lazy and outdated in its humor, it condescends to the same audience it purports to empower.
Not only are the jokes tired, the characters are a veritable checklist of wine-guzzling rom-com clichés. We’ve got Vivian (Fonda), a wealthy hotel owner who’s never let love get in the way of sex, until she meets her match; Sharon (Bergen), a federal judge who’s crushed when her ex-husband gets engaged to a much younger woman; Carol (Steenburgen) is a celebrity chef who’s afraid that the spark has gone out in her 35-year marriage; and Diane (Keaton), a widow of indeterminate profession living in a Nancy Meyers-esque cottage with gleaming white countertops who doesn’t think she can ever love again. (She’s wrong, of course.) All that’s missing is an architect, or maybe a magazine editor. The blandness of the script is matched by the bright lighting, aspirational production design, and generically cheerful Muzak score, with a couple of tracks off of Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits to further reel in the Boomers.
The thing that knocks Vivian, Sharon, Carol, and Diane out of their slumps and into a regular pharmaceutical commercial of sexual reawakening is Fifty Shades Of Grey, which the hyper-sexual Vivian chooses as her selection for the group’s monthly book club. But honestly, it really could have been any dirty book—or a steamy audiobook, for that matter—as the film engages so superficially with the actual content of the series that it becomes just another bit of branding in a film full of it. (Buca Di Beppo and Brooks Brothers also get prominent shoutouts, and the Arizona Tourism Board can consider the plugs for Sedona a freebie.) Given the Fifty Shades series’ subtextual commingling of emotional abuse and romantic love, however, that might not be such a bad thing. One can only assume that these women are far too experienced to fall for that sort of crap.