God Bless ‘Book Club 2,’ a Tour de Force of Corny Cinema
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There are only five people in this world with whom I’d be willing to relive the hell of Zoom-reliant pandemic isolation: Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, and my therapist.
After witnessing the soul-healing powers that emanate from Book Club: The Next Chapter and taking in its valuable lessons about connection, love, and living life to its fullest, I don’t think I even need that therapist anymore. Paying the price of a movie ticket to spend time with my Book Club girlies is far more economical, anyway.
Book Club: The Next Chapter begins with a webcam-led walk down memory lane (or, let’s be real, nightmare alley) of those pandemic-era online meet-ups. When a movie launches in the Year of Our Beyoncé 2023 with a bit about an older person not understanding how her Zoom camera or mute button works, it feels more like it’s settling us in for a horror movie than a charming romp about four good friends going on a girls’ trip.
But that’s a naive, if understandable, instinctual reaction. (I involuntarily moaned, “No…” in a hushed, haunted tone, once I figured out what this framing device was as the movie started.) We—or, at least, I—forgot the enchanting superpowers for the Book Club franchise; yes, this is now a franchise, and may it never end. It freaking stars Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen. Even the worst content is made watchable—sometimes even phenomenal!—by the individual talents of these women and the collective brawn of their easy, impressive screen chemistry.
Yet I was one more Zoom-malfunction joke away from putting every laptop owned by my friends, family, and coworkers into my skirt pockets and recreating Nicole Kidman’s walk into the river from The Hours. But, silly me: This is Diane Keaton doing a Zoom-malfunction joke. Resistance isn’t just futile; it’s impossible. By the time she finally figures out how to turn her camera on, except only now it’s got a cat filter, the other women in the split-screen view are taking turns roasting her and groaning with exasperation. You can’t help but giggle through your sighs too.
Moreover, this opening sequence is deceptively moving. It skips through time and charts a complicated, very real emotional journey: the skittish, unsettled discomfort, when the pandemic shutdown started; the wine-fueled resignation; the monumental, often devastating life changes that happened; and the way relationships changed, in ways good and bad.
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This joke is not a huge chunk of the film, but it’s a poignant, amusing beginning. There’s a palpable rumination on mortality: the preciousness of a life worth seizing the day for, and the preciousness of the people in it who make that seizing so damn fun. It is the C-movie, super-corny version of the opening to Up—an assessment that I feel only about 80-percent as embarrassed for making as I should. And that actually might summarize the whole appeal of this movie.
I expect that, when one buys a ticket to see Book Club: The Next Chapter, they are aware of the type of the film they are seeing. Not a great one! No, siree. But it’s one that delivers something comforting through its cheesiness, and, thanks to that cast, it’s elevated cheesiness. It’s that good cheese you buy at one of those smelly Brooklyn shops that comes wrapped in paper, and everyone oohs and aahs over at the dinner party. It’s Oscar- and Emmy-winning cheese. It’s a cheesy movie for pretentious people, but it’s only enjoyable if you truly let yourself indulge.
The first Book Club starred that award-dripping quartet as lifelong friends, who read Fifty Shades of Grey for their book-of-the-month club. It opens them up in ways they never imagined, as the discussions that stem from their reading blossom into pivotal conversations about their respective lives and what they want, or need, from them. Choosing the infamous “mommy porn” to read was a cheeky lark, but it’s one that realigned their souls and spirits—and cemented their friendship—in ways they could never have expected. Much like my own experience watching the movie. (I kid. Sort of.)
This chapter takes the girls to Italy. Their experience taught them that, now more than ever, it’s necessary to throw caution to the wind and find bliss while you still can. You don’t need to know much more about the plot, because you probably could have written it yourself. Not one thing happens that you don’t expect. Yet, thanks to these actresses, it’s often chuckle-worthy and, at times, surprisingly emotional anyway.
They arrive in Italy, go to a sculpture garden, and take turns delivering hammy jokes about the marble genitalia. A series of lost-in-translation whoopsies lead to travel nightmares that they must bond together to get themselves out of. There’s a montage where they try on clothes. There’s one where they dance to live music while drinking wine. At one point, they dangle out of a helicopter. (OK, that one I wasn’t expecting.)
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Each actress is given her own kooky set piece to show off her physical comedy chops, and each gets a huge, “this is the meaning of life” monologue that is delivered with such bombastic earnestness, you’d be forgiven for reflexively standing and applauding. The Big Jigsaw Puzzle of Feelings is carefully pieced together so that, at the big climax, you may even cry. (Let’s be honest: The puzzle, in this case, is not that complicated.)
The movie mainly functions as a showcase for these veteran actors, turning Italy into their performance playground. Some may find it gratifying to see these women in a movie like this, having a blast. Some may think the material is beneath them. Both viewpoints are correct. But the fact is that Book Club: The Next Chapter is the vehicle that these women are in, so why not have fun with them as they speed away with it?
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