Book Club: The Next Chapter resists taking a page from anything resembling literature. It is not a story so much as a series of mishaps and quips. It is a comedy of situations, a nearly two-hour-long episode of [fill in the blank with your favorite all-women TV show foursome, though obviously Golden Girls fits best]. Luckily for it and us, that’s all it has to be. The four screen legends who portray our protagonists—Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen—are by now settled into their roles to the point of inhabitation. Compared to the rather milquetoast first Book Club (from 2018), the sequel’s lines are funnier, the gags are gaggier. I don’t know why this is exactly. I can’t tell if it’s because 1) I was stoned when I saw it, 2) I watched it with a voraciously appreciative audience, or 3) everyone in the cast is more comfortable this time around. Whatever it is, Book Club: The Next Chapter (in theaters Friday) struck me as superior, sharper, and more worthwhile than its predecessor in every way.
They aren’t even reading books this time! I mean, they do briefly, as the movie opens with a lockdown-set Zoom sequence. (There are also a few brief references to Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.) Via video chat, Keaton’s bumbling Diane fumbles with the technology, muting herself and then turning into a potato by filter. They read Normal People. We learn that the pandemic has caused the restaurant that Steenburgen’s Carol runs to close, and her husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) has a “minor” heart attack. Court’s out of session for Bergen’s judge character Sharon. She soon retires. Fonda’s Viv is still leading with her sexuality, much like the Golden Girls’ Blanche, even with no new 50 Shades of Grey books to be inspired by. She’s also engaged to her once long-lost love Arthur (Don Johnson), and per the opening narration, the movie sets out to answer the question, “How does a woman in her 70s end up getting married?”
The pandemic ends, they reunite even though being in the same room together “still feels illegal,” and then they’re off to Italy. “I’m retired, my cat is dead. We’re talking about going to the top wine-producing country in the world,” says Sharon. There, they’re almost immediately catcalled. Though initially Diane thinks they’ve been called old, upon further translation they come to find that what they’ve been told in Italian is: “The older the vine, the sweeter the fruit.” Viv calls out, “Yeah, we still got it!” Diane agrees: “Yeah, we got it!”
The moment exposes the cap on the movie’s liberated spirit. As refreshing as it may be to watch three women in their 70s and one (Fonda) in her 80s talk about their sexuality and openly seek pleasure, the characters in Book Club are nothing if not beholden to the attention of men. As such, the movie barely passes the Bechdel Test (does talking about wedding dresses count as not talking about a man?) and notions of progressivism tend to be undermined. Risks are flirted with and then swerved. Carol reunites with an old flame, Gianni (Vincent Riotta), a chef whose meatballs’ size is a repeated double entendre. Her friends encourage her to have the affair that she seems drawn to, but it’s all ultimately an excuse for innuendo. Serving the women (and a guy that Sharon picks up and bangs in a boat) in his restaurant, Gianni announces, “I’m here to start the amuse bouche,” to which Viv quips, “I think somebody’s bouche is already amused!” When Carol and Gianni are finally alone together, she tells him, “We better take advantage of tonight.” Cut to a rocking van outside Gianni’s home. Then cut to Mary and Gianni kneading dough inside.
The movie works because its punchlines work and because its characters are tart. It’s all one big exaggeration for the sake of as many laughs as possible. Even Diane, the Rose of the group, gets in a barb or two; she jokes about the team behind Viv’s face (Fonda has been transparent about her plastic surgery). The movie makes it easy, seductive even, to turn off your brain and politics. Of course when these four white women break down in the Italian countryside, they gasp in delight when a cop rolls up. (This leads to Viv attempting to undress him because she figures he’s a stripper, as she’s about to get married.) Of course when they roast each other in jail (they’re arrested for admitting to the hot cop that they were trying to hitchhike), no one has a bad word to say about the sharpest tongue in the bunch and obvious alpha Sharon, the de facto Dorothy Zbornak. (Carol: “I think you are doing just fine.” Diane: “Yeah! I mean, I’ve got nothing.”) Of course even when the institution of marriage is questioned as the proper choice for a character, the concept of monogamy remains honored.
Charm goes a long way, as these four principal actors well know. The Next Chapter’s centerpiece is a karaoke sequence in which Gianni sings the original Italian version of “Gloria” (subsequently made famous in the U.S. by Laura Branigan). In the middle of the number, Steenburgen walks into frame convincingly handling an accordion. Turns out, it’s not a deft pantomime—she actually plays. In 2013, she told CBS News that she picked up music at age 60 after undergoing surgery, a spontaneous skill that may have had something to do with the anesthesia. (???) “I had a minor surgery on my arm, but it was enough that I went under general anesthetic, and the music started right after that,” she said. In the words of Brendan Fraiser’s character in The Whale, people are amazing. Book Club: The Next Chapter makes a really good case for it.