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Book Club: The Next Chapter Review

The opening title card in Book Club: The Next Chapter comes from the great novelist Paulo Coelho: “At a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.” It’s the elixir we take into this follow-up of the surprise 2017 box office hit Book Club, which starred Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen playing four 65+ women who have a kind of sexual awakening after reading the mega bestselling romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Like that book, the discussions in Book Club were frank, and the film went on to garner more than $100 million at the box office. And, like the Fifty Shades of Grey films, Book Club: The Next Chapter just falls limp.


Ms. Fonda, Bergen, Keaton, and Steenburgen: With all due respect — we love you, and you deserve better. But alas, let’s not blame everything on the writers, Bill Holderman (who directs here, too) and Erin Simms. Bergen and Steenburgen reportedly hatched the idea for a sequel before the buzz even simmered down on the first film and, well, why not set The Next Chapter in — molto bene! — Italy. It’s a lovely idea. It worked better for Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun. Here, not so much. But all is not lost. Despite the fact that the filmmakers seemed to be tossing creative pasta noodles on the proverbial wall, trying to see which one would stick, somehow, the country of Italy saves this outing from being far too tepider than it ought to be.

Adiamo, Shall We?

One of the biggest hiccups in Book Club: The Next Chapter, is that the film never fully gets into second gear. It’s pleasant. It’s nice. But, unlike the first outing, it doesn’t offer audiences anything particularly new and refreshing. There’s scenic Italy, of course, but even that seems like a ploy to force enjoyment rather than, well, fully breathe and come to life in all its glory like a robust Italian wine.

The story re-introduces to the ladies during the pandemic. There’s zoom-and-wine meetings, and they plow through a gaggle of books and chat it up. When the women finally reconnect in person, hotel titan Vivian (Fonda) reveals that she’s engaged to a charmer named Arthur (Don Johnson). That may be a bit of déjà vu for audiences, particularly if they’ve binged the latter seasons of Grace and Frankie or even enjoyed 80 For Brady, another four-gal-pals outing in which Fonda’s character seemed eerily familiar and not much a leap from the last one she played. Again, maybe not her fault.

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The film brings us up to date on everybody, too. Diane (Keaton), who was recently widowed when we last saw her, has a new beau (Andy Garcia). Sharon (Bergen) has retired from being a federal judge. Carol (Steenburgen) frets over her husband’s (Craig T. Nelson) health. While it’s great to see these phenomenal actresses on screen together again, the material doesn’t give them all that much truly sink their vibrant creativity into. Somehow, Italy is tossed in as a locale for a bachelorette excursion. Best to see where that idea came up with, how it nearly tanked, and why it was fully executed on your own, but thank goodness because, well, come on — Italy!

A Toast to What Could Have Been

Book Club the Next Chapter
Focus Features

To be sure, Italy becomes one of the main characters in Book Club: The Next Chapter. Movies set in Italy often click, right? The cinematography here is lush, and the country’s landscape is wonderful on the eyes. The lady’s first stop is Rome, where they gobble up food and culture, comment on men’s penises — the statues, the statues! — and begin waxing philosophical, bringing up fate, “signs,” and destiny. This goes back to Paulo Coelho’s original quote in the beginning of the film, but the writers never make it distinctly clear that our fab four are, indeed, truly using the author as a sort of spiritual tour guide here.

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In fact, one of the most glaring flaws of this film is that there is no central book to which this story can be anchored. True, the gals have all read and talked about Coelho’s deep and engaging book during the pandemic, but this would have been an entirely different movie, and one with more universal purpose, had this book club decided to read The Alchemist on the plane — it’s not a long book by any means — and then refer back to it as a sort of life-shifting/changing/molting/whatever experience. All that gets lost in this translation.

The film does perk up in its second half and should satisfy audiences wanting to see Fonda et al. romp around and spar off each other. There are more than a handful of comedy tropes to sift through to keep audiences engaged, but they manage to do the trick. The gals experience some mishaps as they make their way to Venice, then lush Tuscany, where the film’s finale offers satisfying if not predictable results. As for Garcia, Nelson, and Johnson, they don’t have a great deal of screen time. Giovanni Esposito’s wedding coordinator is a hoot, however, and Vincent Riotta’s Chef Gianni is a nice touch. Giancarlo Giannini’s Italian police chief sure gets around in Italy, but he’s here for comic effect and plays well off Bergen.

It’s hard to write this film off entirely. Fonda, Bergen, Keaton, and Steenburgen are among the greatest actresses in TV and cinema. In that respect, it’s equally hard to believe the screenwriters were not able to give them all the might they truly deserve. But we’re in Italy, folks. If you’re poured a glass of wine, and you don’t love it, most likely, you’ll still drink it. There’s enough there to savor. And Fonda, Bergen, Keaton, and Steenburgen satisfies most palates. Cheers to that.

Book Club: The Next Chapter, from Focus Features, opens nationwide May 12.

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