THE STORY – Four best friends take their book club to Italy for the fun girls trip they never had. When things go off the rails, and secrets are revealed, their relaxing vacation turns into a once-in-a-lifetime cross-country adventure.
THE CAST – Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen & Mary Steenburgen
THE TEAM – Bill Holderman (Director/Writer) & Erin Simms (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 108 Minutes
“Book Club” (2018) was the best kind of surprise that shouldn’t have been all that surprising. The film is about a group of friends, played by the award-winning dream team of Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen, who read “Fifty Shades of Grey” in their monthly book club and become inspired to spice up their lives. It grossed over $100 million worldwide against a $14 million budget, shocking everyone yet again with the news that women like to see movies about themselves. Really though, with those four leads (and a supporting cast including Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, and Craig T. Nelson), the film didn’t need much else, and you get the feeling watching it that everyone involved kind of knew that. “Book Club” feels like a cut-rate Nancy Meyers movie – the actors and the kitchens are great, but the script is thin and lacks the warm personality of the best romantic comedies. But since the film was a hit, there is now a sequel. “Book Club: The Next Chapter” is an entirely different kind of surprise: It’s a marked improvement on the first.
After the events of the first film, restaurant owner Carol (Steenburgen), widow Diane (Keaton), federal judge Sharon (Bergen), and hotelier Vivian (Fonda) are living their best lives… until 2020 rolls around and upends everything. The four friends keep up their book club through regular Zoom calls, and once they’re able to see each other in person again, they have something big to celebrate: Vivian has gotten engaged to Arthur (Johnson). Calling upon the themes of their most recent book club read, Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist,” the ladies decide to embrace the adventure and take Vivian on a bridal shower trip to Italy, recreating a trip they were supposed to take in their younger days.
Hijinks, naturally, ensue, but one of the most delightful surprises about “The Next Chapter” is that those hijinks don’t come at the characters’ expense. Yes, some of them could have been easily avoided, but nothing here insults the intelligence of the audience or the characters in the way that many buddy comedies do. Nothing here is particularly deep, but everything feels organic, and the best moments even use the audience’s expectations of this kind of film against them to make some fun visual gags and double entendres. Returning writer-director Bill Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms have made this film with the audience at the front of their minds, giving fans of the first film everything they could possibly want: Jane Fonda puts on a bridal fashion show and gets all the other gals to model a dress! Mary Steenburgen plays Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” on the accordion! Candice Bergen does an imitation of Nicolas Cage in “Moonstruck!” Diane Keaton appears on a Zoom call as a cat! Just hanging out with these four glamorous gals in Italy would have been enough, but nearly every scene has been calibrated for maximum enjoyment (providing you’re watching with friends and copious amounts of wine, just like how the film’s leads are enjoying their trip).
The film’s ultimate message ends up boiling down to a trite “life is what you make of it, so get out there and make something of it” type of sentiment. The script’s copious jokes are all sitcom-level asides and double entendres, but like the first film, those four leading ladies are the ace up this film’s sleeve. Bergen, Fonda, Keaton, and Steenburgen are all old pros who are well-versed in selling material beneath them. They did that to significant effect in “Book Club,” They’re even better here, partly because the material is better. The jokes feel a bit more character-specific this time around, but mostly they’re just solid jokes, and each of the film’s four leads knows precisely what to do to turn each solid joke into a home run. They aren’t the cleverest jokes, nor the funniest, but even the worst ones are delivered with an energy that says, “Look, we all agree this is a bad joke, so let’s all groan in recognition and move on.” And when it’s these performers giving us the ol’ nudge-nudge-wink-wink, laughing at a bad joke becomes just as pleasurable as laughing at the good ones. There’s just something satisfying about old pros delivering old-school setup-punchline-style jokes in the exact right way, and “The Next Chapter” delivers that simple pleasure.
It’s a film full of simple pleasures, really, from the sun-dappled Italian countryside to the romantic comedy tropes that make up the plot. Through it all, our four leading ladies give the types of performances we’ve come to expect from such consummate professionals, gifting the film with a genuine warmth, unlike the first film’s synthetic warmth. Whereas “Book Club” feels somewhat anonymous, with cardboard cut-out characters and a generic aesthetic, “Book Club: The Next Chapter” feels specific to these characters. The film’s saucy, sassy personality and genuine good humor are a breath of fresh air in the current cinematic landscape, proving that you don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars of CGI to make an enjoyable film. Sometimes, just four old pros doing what they do best in beautiful locations is all you need. “The Next Chapter” is far from a perfect film, but for what it is – a romantic hang-out comedy travelog meant to be enjoyed with your best gals and gays over glasses of wine – it’s absolutely perfect.