‘Book Club: The Next Chapter’ Review: A Moderately Engaging Sequel That Should Have Been Funnier
If the opening sequence of Bill Holderman’s “Book Club: The Next Chapter” is any indication we might have officially turned the page on psychological “lockdown despair” narratives and entered the (somewhat cringey) era of lighthearted “lockdown nostalgia.”
That’s what the leading ladies of 2018’s lovely, if not a tad underwhelming, friendship comedy “Book Club” signal in the sequel’s opening moments, reuniting for a similarly boozy and moderately engaging adventure soaked in deep Italian reds, but not enough laughs.
It’s probably easy to feel a little nostalgic for the days of lockdown. Halcyon days for those who were financially privileged, healthy and could afford to take up new interests during that low-key downtime, like pickling, playing the accordion or caring for a new pet parrot. The fabulous (and evidently wealthy) quartet consisting of Jane Fonda’s perennially independent Vivian, Mary Steenburgen’s fretting Carol, Diane Keaton’s formerly uptight Diane and Candice Bergen’s spirited retired judge Sharon try all these things and then some, never losing connection with one another, thanks to regular meetings via Zoom.
“This might go on for two weeks apparently,” Carol suggests naively in the earlier days. (Cue the audience’s polite laugh.) “Hang on, it’s 7pm,” says Vivian at a later moment, making some noise at her window with pots and pans. They talk about books, life and sexy stuff like “Normal People,” feeling desperate to be in each other’s real-world company again.
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Despite taking place entirely on Zoom screens before the opening credits even kick in, these scenes are oddly delightful, with their cinematic sense of economy on the page and resonance around the rough realities many families, friends and the world’s aging population got confronted with during the darkest days of the pandemic. So you find yourself rooting for these four friends taking an overseas trip as promised by “The Next Chapter,” especially knowing that Covid stole so much precious time out of their remaining lives, as women already in their 70s and 80s.
The good news is, the script by Holderman and Erin Simms know better than treating these screen legends as anything less than fabulous friends on a fabulous trip. Like they did in the predecessor, the co-writers approach these characters’ aging with respect and warmth—a miracle in mainstream Hollywood that doesn’t have the greatest track record in telling rich stories centered on septuagenarians.
But the bad news is “Book Club: The Next Chapter” never quite manages to seize the groove it established in its opening moments. Sure, the film gets its philosophical point across—it’s never too late to start a new chapter—and does so with the backdrop of picturesque Italian vistas across Rome, Venice and Tuscany. This critic couldn’t help, though, but wish for something snappier, droller, and maybe even more scandalous.
In other words, you will miss some of the jokes from the former movie, one that was too tame but at least went as far as comparing an unloved vagina to Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” Here, you’ll have to settle for tired one-liners like “amuse-bouche” used alongside its homonym, a joke that was trite even when “Sex & The City” used it in its sixth season two decades ago.
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Still, the locations are fantastic and so are the quartet of women, even if they seem suffocated by a meandering story and uninspired jokes. The Italian vacation kicks off as an excuse to set a former travel plan that never was in motion and to throw a bachelorette party for Vivian, who’s finally agreed to tie the knot with her boyfriend Arthur (Don Johnson) after a joint quarantine period in NYC. Relegated to civic duties like marrying people in her retirement, Sharon gleefully agrees and so do Diane (still living with Andy Garcia’s dreamboat Mitchell) and the fearful Carol, closely policing her husband Bruce’s (Craig T. Nelson) health after the stroke he suffered.
It’s completely implausible how they come to lose their luggage in Italy or serve jail time overnight—shouldn’t four smart, worldly and experienced women know a little better?—and the dialogue exchanges that are supposed to be laugh-out-loud are full of clunkers. Yet there is pleasure to be had in the band’s company, especially during a storybook wedding dress shopping sequence where Vivian finds her ideal gown and Diane gives us a taste of the most Diane Keaton outfit imaginable.
Elsewhere, the journey gets enlivened by an old flame Carol runs into in Venice, a running gag about a police officer on the travelers’ case, a casual hook-up Sharon enjoys with Hugh Quarshie’s Ousmane (even if the film is sadly too coy to actually show anything worthwhile) and plenty of red-sauce Italian food porn. The icing that tries to prettify an under-baked cake is naturally the upcoming wedding, which “The Next Chapter” drags on until it overstays it welcome.
Perhaps it was enough for “Book Club” to merely exist as an act of rebellion against the stubbornly young-skewing studio fare. But this follow-up needed to give us more, something along the lines of a sharper film deserving of the earned legacies of Fonda, Keaton, Bergen and Steenburgen.
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