‘Book Club: The Next Chapter’: This Jane Fonda Film Is a Cinematic Joy

An all-star cast—Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen—goes on an all-expenses-paid vacation to Italy in this contrived but entertaining sequel.

Mary Steenburgen, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, and Candice Bergen (from left) in ‘Book Club: The Next Chapter.’ Courtesy of FIFTH SEASON

As a sequel to the popular 2018 comedy about four middle-aged women in Los Angeles who keep their friendship alive by meeting once a month to drink gallons of wine and discuss a book they’ve just read, Book Club: The Next Chapter follows the current trend of joining Jane Fonda with a trio of fading screen stars who are still ambulatory and sending them all on location, hoping they’re funny. The abysmal 80 For Brady dragged Jane, Lily Tomlin, Sally Field and Rita Moreno off to the Super Bowl with dismal results. Book Club: The Next Chapter reunites Jane, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen as the plucked, pedicured and camera-ready septuagenarians they played in the original. It’s somewhat (but not very) superior to its recent all-star predecessors starring glamorous seniors, but even when it stumbles, the stars have never been more welcome.

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Directed by: Bill Holderman
Written by: Bill Holderman, Erin Simms
Starring: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Giancarlo Giannini, Andy García, Don Johnson
Running time: 108 mins.

The ladies, whose lives were radically after reading the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy, still guzzle chardonnay but now, instead of meeting in each other’s lavish kitchens, they do it on Zoom.  Sharon (Bergen ) is a retired federal judge, long divorced but still seeing her sexy pilot Mitchell (Andy Garcia). Diane ( Keaton) is a widow with two grown daughters and no sex life. Carol (Steenburgen) has surrendered her career as a restauranteur-chef to worry and fret over her husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) after he suffered a stroke. Vivian (Fonda) is the vivacious hotel owner, still firmly unattached and fiercely independent, who shocks them all when she announces that after decades of happy emotional solitude, she and old boyfriend Arthur (Don Johnson) are engaged to be married in Italy. Separated too many years by the Covid epidemic, the girls decide it’s the perfect occasion to rejoin their friendship and accompany Vivian to Italy for her wedding, turning the celebration into an adventurous bachelorette party.

These icons still have immeasurable charm and charisma, but in the meandering mechanics that follow, they need a miracle to enhance the limp direction and dawdling screenplay by Bill Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms, who created the original Book Club five years ago. Surprisingly, in the interim, they’ve lost some of their zest and sparkle, and so has the premise. I didn’t believe the way everyone’s luggage disappears in Rome, before they even unpack, with everything in it including Diane’s late husband’s ashes, forcing them to buy fabulous new clothes and turning the rest of the movie into a fashion show. And I found even more implausible the reason they end up spending a night in jail.

Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Jane Fonda (from left) in ‘Book Club: The Next Chapter.’ Riccardo Ghilardi

Still, their enthusiasm enthralls as they admire the Spanish steps, dine in the Piazza Navona, knock back the Prosecco, and fall in love with the statues—especially the penises on the statues. From Rome to Tuscany to the canals of Venice, they knock themselves out grinning and posing for selfies and trying to look half their age. I admit I found it a cinematic joy watching them do it. Since nobody bothered to develop the characters and they never say anything amusing anyway, the film turns into a travelog that should do wonders for travel agents everywhere.

The men finally arrive, but they’re just vestigial, serving the same purpose women used to do as mere set decorations. By suddenly tracking the moves of an expanded cast instead of four gal pals, Book Club: The Next Chapter proves it is possible for a movie to be both contrived and confusing at the same time. In the end there is an element of real surprise, involving a wedding between the wrong people. Bad decisions abound, old jokes lack fresh appeal, and the Bette Midler version of “Mambo Italiano” that repeats annoyingly throughout is corny. (They should have used Rosemary Clooney’s much peppier 1954 recording instead.)

Having said all this, I fear I’ve given the bogus impression that this is a sequel I don’t give a hang about. Quite the contrary. It’s the kind of film that exists for the sole purpose of entertainment, which it provides consistently. The four stars deserve better material, but even they seem to enjoy themselves (and each other). Call Book Club: The Next Chapter the rare sequel that looks like an all-expense-paid vacation.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Book Club: The Next Chapter’: This Jane Fonda Film Is a Cinematic Joy