Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen (left to right) play four best friends with enviable lifestyles in L.A. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Pictures)
Movie critic

Rating: 3 stars

In “Book Club,” Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen play four best friends who have not only been in the same reading circle for 40 years, but have also achieved almost identical consumerist heights. Drinking white wine and arranging (but never actually consuming) bespoke appetizers against the backdrops of their immaculate Los Angeles kitchens, these characters’ lives might differ in the details, but not their prosperous, physically fit, almost freakishly well-preserved gestalt.

Fonda plays Vivian, a wealthy hotel owner who prefers casual sex to commitment; Keaton plays Diane, whose husband died a year ago and whose kids are nagging her to move to Arizona, presumably to dry up and quietly senesce; Bergen’s Sharon is a divorced federal judge who gave up romance years ago; and Steenburgen plays Carol, a cheerful homemaker who longs to spice things up with her longtime husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson).

As “Book Club” opens, the group has just finished Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild.” (The underwhelmed verdict: “She hiked. She lost her boot. She did heroin.”) Then someone suggests they tackle “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the DIY piece of “Twilight” fan fiction that became a cultural phenomenon. Soon, the women are devouring E.L. James’s violet prose and polite violence with varying degrees of alarm and avidity, with each of them experiencing an erotic awakening no less revelatory for being achieved without actual handcuffs and a whip.

“Book Club,” which was directed by Bill Holderman from a script he wrote with Erin Simms, has been called “Sex and the City of a Certain Age,” although this city is notional in its realism (welcome to an L.A. where no people of color live, work or even qualify as background players), and the libidinous activity is strictly PG-13: At one point, an errant f-word is ingeniously camouflaged with a discreet cough. The script is a-bubble with witty, on-point observations about aging bodies and flagging sex drives (at one point, Carol compares a part of her anatomy to Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”), which enliven otherwise generic setups and sluggish, off-kilter pacing. Stodginess, an inherent hazard of the genre, is kept reasonably at bay with the help of choice cuts from Tom Petty, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.


Even the cheesy parts of “Book Club” will be worth it if they get Candice Bergen, the standout of the group, back to the big screen. (Peter Iovino/Paramount Pictures)

The all-star ensemble, dominated by actresses who were at their height in the 1970s, works well as an easygoing team, their mutual warmth enhanced by the kind of diffuse, soft-edged light made famous by the director Nancy Meyers. Fonda brings her usual crisp, alert focus to the role of a serial man-izer, even as her natural sex appeal is undermined by an unflattering red wig. Keaton, resplendent in her signature menswear-chic, keeps the dithering mannerisms to a minimum. Steenburgen, the class whippersnapper, portrays a convincing mash-up of strained longing and perky optimism. The standout of the group is also the one we see most rarely in movies these days: Bergen lays into her character’s wry aperçus with the impeccable timing and deadpan facial expressions that made her a comedic star on the sitcom “Murphy Brown.”

If “Book Club” does anything to bring Bergen back to the big screen, even its cheesiest moments will have been worth it, and that includes Fonda’s painfully awkward frolic with an equally ill-at-ease suitor in a fountain. But it features terrific supporting performances as well, especially from male love interests portrayed by Don Johnson, Richard Dreyfuss, Andy Garcia and Nelson, who is responsible for the film’s Big Talker of a sight gag, when his character runs afoul of a double dose of Viagra.

As an example of fan-fic-fic, “Book Club” bears next to no resemblance to the steamy literature to which it pays mostly tepid homage. But it has brio, rueful humor and celebratory verve that is nearly impossible to resist.

PG-13.  At area theaters. Contains sex-related material throughout and crude language. 104 minutes.