I’ll be the first to admit that I understand why people find it hard to think of older people as sexual beings. Not because they are no longer sexy, or even because we automatically think of our own grandparents, but because society has taught us that when people (mainly women) reach a certain age, they automatically turn into wise, sexless grandparents. This is obviously not the case, but it does take some effort to undo this social programming. This is where Book Club lends a helping hand by guiding us through the perspective of these women and starting a conversation on the topic, the same way 50 Shades of Grey did with the BDSM community.
The film is not representative of the entire community, but as a story about wealthy, upper-middle-class white woman, Book Club is a monumental success. It focuses on a different set of hardships that people of a certain age face when they can retire without any financial worries. Only half of the leading women are retired, while the other two are shown at the peak of their careers. No, none of them are Walmart greeters or shown barely surviving from social security check to social security check each month because that would ruin the cheery glossiness the film is trying to paint the story in. The writing team consists of first-time director and co-writer Bill Holderman and first-time writer Erin Simms as they take a story with a naturally funny premise and write a script that seems to follow the romcom rulebook to the letter. Think Golden Girls meets Sex and the City, but not nearly as comedic or edgy.
Neither Holderman and Simms are an older woman, which explains why they took a safe approach to such a specific story. They start with a punchline: women of a certain age read the “50 Shades of Grey” trilogy. Alone, it is a very funny conceit, but it can only carry the film so far. This film doesn’t go anywhere near the dark reality of elder care in our country, which would make for a much more compelling film. Instead, Holderman and Simms use this as a launch pad to explore another important topic that is seen as something of a taboo in our society: sexuality in people of a certain age.
At a certain age (usually around 30), women in Hollywood move from being cast as a sex symbol to a maternal figure. It has happened to each of the leading ladies in this film, but Book Club is all about empowerment and sends a refreshing message that you can be sexy and a sexual creature at any age. The much-needed representation that this film provides is enough to deserve your attention, but the star power of its actresses is what will keep it.
The film relies too heavily on the legendary cast to elevate a romcom whose tried-and-true formula pre-dates any of them. Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen each effortlessly stand out in the film without anyone person stealing the spotlight. This ensemble cast is completely balanced through equally engaging storylines that explore a variety of different romantic situations. Although each character shallow storywise, each of these actresses adds a layer of depth simply by using their natural charisma and affability. Their combined charm and emotional range make even the most tedious of moments into something mildly entertaining.
Although Book Club is not terrible, it spends much of the time coasting right above tolerable. Most of the jokes and visual gags are funny simply because of how unaccustomed we are to hear this kind of humor from older women. It’s refreshing. It reminds us that men aren’t the only ones who continue to have sexual needs as they get older, and woman shouldn’t be stigmatized or marginalized because of theirs. Holderman understands the importance of comedic timing, and while most of the jokes land flawlessly, there are a few misses along with a major misfire that goes well into problematic territory. The scene in question involves slipping viagra into their husband’s drink without their consent, as a way to get them to initiate sex. In a film about female empowerment, this minor scene threatens to undermine the film’s entire message.