Book Club: The Next Chapter review – Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton terrorise Europe in dismal sequel

​​I doubt the success of 2018’s Book Club had all that much to do with its story – four older women rediscovering their sexuality by giggling over mentions of butt plugs in Fifty Shades of Grey – as it did the simple pleasure of watching Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen drink white wine and hang out in the most expensive kitchen you’ve ever set eyes upon. So audiences, I imagine, would have been perfectly satisfied if its Italy-set sequel, The Next Chapter, was nothing but two hours of these exquisitely dressed women sauntering around Rome and Venice, twirling bundles of spaghetti on their forks and drinking prosecco by the gallon.

Unfortunately, director Bill Holderman, and his co-writer Erin Simms, had other plans. Their film is so stuffed with incident – all of it preposterous, and occasionally insulting to the intelligence of its central quartet – that it sours what could (and should) have been a joyful celebration of desire and indulgence at any age. The Next Chapter, really, is the story of four obnoxious American tourists terrorising the people of Italy. Everything becomes a sexual innuendo, whether or not it actually makes sense. The locals are persistently inconvenienced by their blitheness, and at times outrightly harassed. And, without spoiling the finale, the women at one point cause what I’m fairly certain is a serious environmental hazard.

We begin, almost out of obligation, at the start of the pandemic. The quartet continue their book club over Zoom, all of it filmed at such improbable angles you’ll be left questioning where exactly in the room they were balancing all these phones and tablets – and how many professional lighting set-ups they just happened to have lying around. They read Sally Rooney’s Normal People (of course). They try out a few new hobbies (of course, of course). And then on with the show: Vivian (Fonda) is about to abandon her lifelong singledom and marry the dashing Arthur (Don Johnson). Retired judge Sharon (Bergen) is enjoying her newfound promiscuity. Carol (Steenburgen) frets over her husband Bruce (Craig T Nelson) after he suffers a minor heart attack. Diane (Keaton) realises it’s probably about time she spread her late husband’s ashes, instead of hiding them away in a coffee tin.

Each of these narrative strands reach their inevitable conclusion when the group decide to take their “trip that never was” to Tuscany, a holiday put aside many decades ago when Diane unexpectedly got pregnant. Their only literary guide is a few dimly remembered passages from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, which follows an Andalusian shepherd on a journey of self-actualisation, leading the women to allow any and all cosmic signs to guide their path.

But it’s hard to really digest any of these characters’ spiritual eureka moments when they arrive seconds after some profoundly nonsensical bit of sexual innuendo. Who cares about love and commitment and desire – why exactly were these women all hysterical when a chef invited them to tour around his “cucina”? What phallic word is “cucina” supposedly meant to sound like? Anyone? And why were the establishing shots of Italian landscapes here so randomly sourced, to the point that one city flyover looked distinctly pixellated? It’s all an unwelcome distraction from what should have been the main point of The Next Chapter: four screen legends, whose collective charisma could power the sun, having a whale of a time.

Dir: Bill Holderman. Starring: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Don Johnson, Andy Garcia, Craig T Nelson. 12A, 108 minutes.

‘Book Club 2: The Next Chapter’ is in cinemas from 12 May