Friday, May 11, 2018

Define Grownup

    This week AARP invited me and other members to watch an advanced screening of Book Club (due out May 18) as part of their Movies for Grownups program, which actually gives out awards for such films (last year they gave Helen Mirren a well-deserved lifetime achievement award). The screening was held at the Regal Park Place Stadium 16 in Pinellas Park. Let me say in advance that I am grateful to the AARP for offering the free showing at a theater with plushy seats complete with leg raises at the push of a button.

     Sadly, however, the movie made me feel embarrassed for the four veteran stars who starred in it. Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenbergen were, alas, not given grown-up roles and certainly not grown-up dialogue.

     Could the blame lie in the fact that the movie, touted to be one about women bonding over books, was co-written by a man and directed by him? No, I am not one of those women who believe that men cannot write fully textured women characters with realistic dialogue. What about Jorge Amado in Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands or Ian McEwan in Atonement?  Or Steven Rogers, whose previous work included the forgettable Stepmom, penning two unforgettable female characters in I, Tonya?  

     By contrast, Book Club never gets into the psyches of its main characters. The four women merely are pawns in a madcap series of improbable scenes. Slapstick trumps insight.

     The movie opens with the four main female characters getting together for their regular book club meeting. They have been discussing books together since college. Each is presented with a background that is entirely believable. Diane (Diane Keaton) is a recent widow whose two grown children treat her like an invalid. Vivian (Jane Fonda) is a hotel owner who seeks men for pleasure not intimacy and not, god forbid, for marriage. Carol (Mary Steenbergen)'s once steamy marriage has cooled since her husband's retirement. Sharon is a divorced federal judge whose bumbling ex-husband (played by Ed Begley, Jr.) is dating an airhead bombshell who could be his daughter (played by . 

     Well, the last bit is a bit of a stretch, but it could happen.

     Instead of exploring the very different pathways taken by these four friends, however, the movie plays their circumstances for laughs. In fact, Book Club seems to go out of its way to present these women in situations that strain credibility. The buttoned-up Sharon is shown staggering out of the back seat of her car at the end of her Bumble date. Vivian's husband (played by Craig T. Nelson) is also shown staggering around. He has a permanent boner. Vivian has secretly given him Viagra to spice up their sex life. 

     The most incredible scene, however, involves Diane: She literally stumbles over a man on her flight out to Arizona to see her kids. Played by Andy Garcia looking like "The Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials, he turns out to be a pilot and, of course, fabulously wealthy. But just when she slips away for a tryst at his desert spread, her kids track her down with the help of a policeman and cart her away. There is so much wrong with that scenario, it's hard to know where to begin. Where in the world did those kids find a cop who would track down a mom whose phone has gone to voicemail? What woman leaves The Most Interesting Man in the World to go live in her children's basement?

    And Vivian? You might at first mistake her for Grace, the character Fonda plays in the TV series Grace and Frankie. Like Grace, she is a successful businesswoman with issues. But the screenwriters of Book Club should have examined more closely why that TV series work: Yes, we laugh at Grace and Frankie, but we also are moved to tears as we witness their often difficult female bonding and their struggles with aging.  
   Rarely in Book Club is there a moment when I felt like I was looking at real people instead of  cardboard characters invented for wacko plot lines. One true moment is during that Bumble date when George (played by Richard Dreyfuss) awkwardly asks Sharon for a kiss. Another is the line uttered by The Most Interesting Man in the World as the kids are hauling their mom off:  "You have a right to be happy, Diane." And there are genuine moments between Vivian and her ex-boyfriend Arthur (played by Don Johnson who thankfully has lost his slick and is actually appealing). Here, the screenwriters offer up some quirky details (Vivian confesses, for example, that what she loves best is not sex but having her arm tickled) that flesh these characters out.

     These moments, however, are fleeting. Who are these women? We never really find out. The screenwriters insist on defining them primarily by their relationships with men. Whatever happened to Gloria Steinem's "Women need men like a fish needs a bicycle"? 

     For their Book Club, by the way, Vivian, Sharon, Diane and Carol are reading E.L. James' erotic s&m three-part series Fifty Shades of Grey -- an awesome product placement for any author.  Alas, alas, alas, they might have made a better choice.

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