Tale of the Tape: Book Club, Famed Dames Awards Edition — Jane Fonda (7 Oscar noms, 5 Emmy noms, 2 Oscars, 1 Emmy); Diane Keaton (4 Oscar noms, 1 Emmy nom, 1 Oscar); Mary Steenburgen (1 Oscar nom, 1 Emmy nom, 1 Oscar); Candice Bergen (1 Oscar nom, 9 Emmy noms, 5 Emmys).
In the name of fairness, Emmy nominations were counted to help even the playing field for Candice Bergen. (The line was drawn at the Golden Globes; in Trump’s America, we no longer recognize Awards from the fake foreigner press.) How many times have we heard performers yammer over a perceived lack of well-written parts for women in Hollywood? It must be true, because how else does an impotent sex comedy about four yentas committing to reading E. L. James’ 50 Shades trilogy attract four decorated leading ladies with a combined total of 29 nominations and 10 wins? It’s doubtful that even the lowly Academy would hand out trophies for something as atrophied as this.
Trailer for Book Club
As we open, it has been forty years since our quartet of friends first pledged to bury themselves in a dozen books a year to meet the quota required for their monthly reading meetings. Let’s meet the ladies of the club: there’s Slim (Fonda), a widowed hotelier oversexed to the point of distraction. Her love interest is an old flame (Don Johnson) that she’s hesitant to rekindle. (It has something to do with an aversion to post-coital sleepovers.) It’s Hollywood’s job to age glamorously, no matter how alien-looking the result. Fonda’s plastic surgeon appears to have sand-blasted ten years from the actress’ face. Though nowhere near as severe as Joan Rivers’ transformation from Brooklyn meydl Joan Molinsky to Siamese Katz, there is something otherworldly about a 76-year-old actress with fewer wrinkles than machine-washable merino.
Diane (Keaton), doing double-duty as narrator, feels pressured by her two daughters to come live with one of them. Fearing that their hale and hearty mother may at any moment become a feeble-minded burden on them, they assure mom that one of their suburban basements has her name on it. Diane’s love interest is played by Andy Garcia. Don’t for a second think that the irony of Kay Corleone hooking up with Vincent Mancini failed to cross my mind. Ditto Keaton and Wallace Shawn, another blast from the past who proved to be so memorable as the “little homunculus” who “opened her up sexuallly” in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. I’ll confess to one belly-bursting laugh: the sight of La Keaton — without the aid of a process shot or studio mockup — dining at Buca di Beppo took a good five minutes to recover from. At least she had the good sense to remove her gloves.
Carol (Mary Steenburgen) is the one member of the group still in possession of a husband (Craig T. Nelson). Sadly, Steenburgen is assigned the task of slipping her better-half a Mickey in the form of a little blue pill to help spice up their sex life, or as I like to call it, reverse date rape. The ensuing “boner” material is no doubt aimed at attracting Judd Apatow crossovers. One of these days, I must write about Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard and how much the film means to me. Until then, I ask you take my word that Melvin’s transition from “Milkman of the Month” to American folk hero was not only the best picture of 1980, it’s the best the decade had to offer. Steenburgen earned her supporting actress Oscar playing Melvin Dumar’s wife. Seeing her clad in a waitress costume or tap dancing her way through an otherwise time-padding charity event brought her performance as Linda Dumar to mind. Fond memories of another movie are the best this Book Club had to offer.
There was a time when critics looked upon Candice Bergen as just another one of her famed father Edgar’s ventriloquist dummies. The fashion model-turned-actress was practically hooted off the screen for her work in Soldier Blue or T.R. Baskin. Back-to-back performances in Starting Over, for which she received her Oscar nom, and Rich and Famous helped to change audience perception, but it wasn’t until her small screen portrayal of investigative journalist and news anchor, Murphy Brown that viewers and critics began showing Bergen the respect she deserved. My cheap opening Emmy-shot notwithstanding, Bergen’s re-virginized Chief Justice handily steals every scene. While great lengths are taken to avoid mentioning political affiliations, Judge Sharon’s cat is named “Ginsberg.”
So much for our lettered players. The doctored picture that opens the film — four cut out heads badly photoshopped to represent 40 years of friendship — sets a tone of fierce laziness. Have our distinguished ladies become so accustomed to sycophants that they fail to realize that people don’t talk this way unless they’ve found work on a sitcom? Per custom, the majority of the film’s big laughs are contained in the trailer which, over the course of three months, I’ve seen more times than there are kernels of popcorn in a refillable bucket.
Considering the group’s reading assignment, one would expect, if not a desire for, at least a hint of S&M. What I wouldn’t have given to watch Johnson tie Fonda to the bed, stick a ball-gag in her mouth, and, for at least a moment or two, silence the witless stream of kvetching.
Director Bill Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms would have been lost were it not for smutty sexual innuendo. Had this type of crotch-grabbing, pussy-joking schtick been performed by a younger cast, it’s a safe bet that so-called “mature audiences” would have shunned it like a lactose intolerant diabetic would eggnog. Wanna make an audience cringe? Throw a dog under the back wheels of a speeding roadster. Wanna make an audience laugh? Have a child or senior curse. It’s Fonda who gets to throw out the film’s one and only PG-13-earning “fuck.” The audience I saw it with could have been more appreciative.
This is Holderman’s first time behind the camera. Prior to his work on Book Club, he acted as producer on a quartet of Robert Redford stinkers starting with Lions for Lambs and ending with A Walk in the Woods. After that much time spent laboring over serious topics, Holdermann must have been eager to make a comedy in the worst way. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how it turned out. If ever I grow so old that you’ll find me in my hospice bed actually laughing at geezer porn, do me a favor and put a pillow over my head to muffle the sound of a single gunshot.