The quiet riot renaissance of ensemble comedies involving legendary actors in silly, yet modern or relatable situations (no period dramas) may not cease any time soon. Earlier this year, 80 for Brady further proved the subgenre’s drawing power, and how the finished product is only as effective, or as necessary as one’s script. A sequel to a previously existing film of this type might be even more questionable if the written page can’t justify the means. Not that the audience it caters to would mind, but it makes enough sense to offer more with the same, albeit with stakes notched up a touch. 2018’s Book Club was a workable friendship rom-com highlighting veteran actors and genius minds in search of a relationship thrill, inspired by the sultry words of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. A thin plot made robust by its stars, landing a few healthy chuckles. Director Bill Holderman, once more co-writing with Erin Simms, does find an easy avenue to elevate the game, injecting a surprising adventure element into Book Club: The Next Chapter.
Do keep in mind, the pair aren’t attempting another Romancing the Stone rehash. It’s something slower, but still well envisioned, particularly as the pandemic is further pushed into the rear-view mirror. The four besties from the previous installment have seen their share of struggle and surprise over five years. Lockdown has kept hotel owner Diane (Diane Keaton), gone-steady Vivian (Jane Fonda), retired judge Sharon (Candace Bergen), and former restauranteur Carol (Mary Steenburgen) distanced, hosting their club meetings via Zoom, with the latter acting mama bear on husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), recovering from a heart attack.
They may have a little more spare time on their hands, but their motivation to explore is slow to return. It takes Vivian readying a hitch with long-time first love Arthur (Don Johnson) to serve as a catalyst for the need to be daring again. They agree on a bridesmaids’ getaway to Italy, a trip they once planned years back, even saving up flight vouchers for, but never locked in. From there, once these ladies set foot on that classical soul, any manner of mischief and mishap lands square in their laps.
They lose their luggage, get sauced on prosecco, and discover hidden fears. Sharon has a chance flirtation with retired philosophy professor Ousmane (a frustratingly underused Hugh Quarshie). And Carol faces mild scrutiny, reconnecting with Gianni (Vincent Riotta), a chef at a garden-themed restaurant who was once her teacher at cooking school. Nothing too ridiculous happens, aside from the customary (and literal) “pulling dough” innuendo and the anxiety of it being misconstrued.
The wild difference one wouldn’t expect out of a sequel of this nature is that things are indeed happening that move the needle for this cast. Whatever occurred in the first to pad itself out to 100 minutes could only fill out ten pages at most, with a lot of “will they or won’t they” to flesh out the concept. The Next Chapter does take plenty of liberty with its locales, expertly captured on screen by DP Andrew Dunn (Flora & Ulysses), to better address character anxiety, versus being a motivational straight line.
Even as the elements of Holderman’s writing still feel adjunctly cobbled together, and at times wordy, the depth of their journey suddenly packs a stronger resonance. That much doesn’t hit until the midway part; the first act is the most stitched without cohesion. By then, it’s clear how much these characters have evolved, resilience is now a worn-out catchword in the COVID times, and they’re still confronting the same idyllic fear. They want love, but on their own terms, and certainly without fear or hindrance. Each of the four unpacks that in their own manner, Bergen and Fonda often winning out at points with their dry wit, and Keaton with her quizzical yet sharp rationale. Steenburgen is once more the most welcome, and visible in this quartet. Her joy, bubbliness, and above all disquietude, appeared clear on her face with any manner of subtle expression. Just as true when the emotions and a heightened sense of overprotection pour out in her bond with Bruce. The group takes this trip to wrestle with a reframing of their independence, though it’s Carol who might have the most to learn.
Diane’s own plight in the same vein does pop up at spots within Holderman and Simms’s pages. One of maybe a few ideas that deserved to be more forefront, instead of showing up for mere convenience’s sake. I could sense an all-around improvement from one venture to the next; it’s not as formulaic in design or scale, which only emphasizes the key idea of attempting the unfamiliar, even if it once were. For these four, it’s not their first European getaway. There are merely certain moments where the sophomoric nature of it all tricks one into thinking it could be, with antics in a museum, drinking their way through Rome, and Steenburgen wailing on the accordion, among others. It goes bold, and a tad ribald, sacrificing a deeper probe into balanced character development. An eloquent, grown-up travel feature, struggling to coexist in the framework of a nineties sex comedy. That’s the tone being struck here, leaning more on the former, but still leading to an awkward mix.
What’s not at all awkward is the still refreshing chemistry with Keaton and her squad, palavering about in Italy’s tranquil beauty with an upbeat, free-wheeling attitude. I’d say Book Club: The Next Chapter revels in the same sort of exuberance its predecessor drafted in a smaller dose. More of it to go around here, just done in a weird trajectory that left me questioning the sort of film I was glimpsing when not laughing along with the crowd. The audience it’s aiming for will either be just as raptured if not more so, if not equally stumped. Not that that would cause Holderman to waver off balance here. His is a warm cup of cinematic sentiment, reminiscent of similar excursions where the journey matters in equal step with the destination. Though with the roots of their trip not completely defined, I’d immediately side with the destination. (C+; 3/5)
Book Club: The Next Chapter opens in theaters May 12; rated PG-13 for some strong language and suggestive material; 107 minutes.