Book Club

My Mum has been in a book club for as long as I can remember. Many evenings of my childhood were spent at the top of the stairs silently listening to the sound of women arriving, the chatter of discussion, the clink of tea cups and the smell of strawberry cheesecake. 

Remarkably, Mum and her friends are still at it. Book Club meets at various houses and flats across north west London every month. I know they, now as then, did talk a bit about books, I think, but other topics were certainly up for debate – school runs, children, holidays, poorly parents. Maybe I’d sloped off to bed by the time the ladies started talking about sex.

But if the new Hollywood film, Book Club, is to be believed, sex not books is the main topic of conversation among women of a certain age. The subjects combine, at least in this movie, when the girls make Fifty Shades of Grey their book of the month and the soft erotica in the pages of EL James’ bonkbusting bestseller has actresses the calibre of Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda “in a total tizzy”.

Keaton (playing newly-widowed housewife Diane) and Fonda (successful, terminally single hotel owner Vivian) are joined in their titular Book Club by Candice Bergen – as Federal Court judge and divorcee Sharon – and Mary Steenburgen (frustrated caterer Carol). All of them, book club friends for over 30 years, are ‘stimulated’ by the book and, encouraged by the breezy Vivian, decide they deserve to ramp up their own sex lives, leading to a film that’s far more about libido than literature.

Such is the innuendo and sauciness, I half expected Sid James and Kenneth Williams to show up. When Bergen’s Sharon takes her depressed cat to the vet, she gets the diagnosis: “What we have here is a lethargic pussy.” Oo-er. Where’s Molly Sugden when you need her?

Cue a flurry of gags about Viagara, the “corporal standing to attention,” and suddenly Diane’s on a date with a handsome pilot (Andy Garcia) and Vivian’s splashing about in a fountain with an old flame (Don Johnson). Meanwhile Sharon’s interrupting court proceedings to answer her new internet dating website and Carol’s helping her husband (Craig T Nelson) oil a crankshaft in the garage. It’s like Sex and the City on HRT.

I’m all for a film which allows older women to talk about sex, and even have it. I’m even prepared to believe that the thought of having it might reduce mature matriarchs to giggling girls, especially with the size of the glasses of white wine being guzzled here – the canapés, I note, are hardly touched. 

But there’s no excuse for some of the ropey dialogue here nor some of the shoddy lighting and the awful photoshopping of old family photos. In particular, Diane’s daughters (one is played by Alicia Silverstone) are dreadful caricatures. There are inevitable and embarrassing dress-up montages as Diane picks an outfit for her date – surely everyone knows by now that nobody can style Keaton except Keaton – and a cringe-inducing one with Candice Bergen getting all twisted up in what I think is a pair of Spanx.

TV shows like The Golden Girls or those Nancy Myers films such as Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated have demonstrated the charms of late-flowering love (and sex) without the need for patronising their characters but Book Club seems to have skipped vital pages – maybe they should read some Nora Ephron next time. 

For among the sniggers and the fumblings, there are actually some good gags, including a Jaws-related one about how Richard Dreyfuss and the hornily re-awoken Sharon are going to “need a bigger back seat”.

Of course, few of us can look as good as these actresses at their age, the 80-year-old Fonda being particularly astounding. Nor do the characters shy away from acknowledging the help needed to maintain such physical standards. Yet amid the Hollywood nips and tucks and this script’s childish smirking, it’s the pangs of later-life longing, the stabs of loneliness and the desire for fulfilment that come over as all too real.