Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Review: Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen Are Back in “Book Club 2,” the Rare Sequel that Betters the Original

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You could think of Oscar winners Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen, and multiple Emmy winner Candice Bergen as senior Avengers in “Book Club 2,” the much better sequel to 2019’s “Book Club.” They are super heroines, powerful women of comedy, drama, and a certain age who are like fine wine.

The movie is an old fashioned studio release, constructed with some pearls of great acting and writing that are strung together with a few cliches. If the movie– directed by Bill Holderman — didn’t have four superstars carrying it, we might think otherwise. But these ladies light “Book Club 2” up and often take it well past its possibilities.

Fonda is clearly the star of this quartet. She looks amazing, of course, a decade older than the other women it seems plausible that they all met at the same age. The main story is that her Vivian has said to yes to marrying Don Johnson, even though it doesn’t seem like she wants to go through with it. Vivian has never been married, and loves her independent life.

All the woman are successful and have lots of money. That is never discussed. All old friends, they decide to go on a bachelorette trip for Vivian in Italy. Shot on location, “Book Club” looks good enough to eat. It’s unparalleled success as a travelogue, maybe even better than “The White Lotus.”

There are dumb jokes, old people jokes, sex jokes, bad jokes. There are clever ones, too, and comic lines dropped like little cherry bombs by Bergen, as a retired judge named Sharon, which play to the Emmy winning actresses Serena Williams-type delivery. Bergen just sneaks up court in every scene and smashes the ball over the fence, leaving everyone around her blown away. Bergen began her career as a gorgeous ingenue, then showed off her braininess, and finally became a great comic actress. She kind of glows here.

The other women are a little more subtle, no less equals. Diane Keaton’s Diane is fashionable and funny, accessible and wry. She’s also a walking fashion show. Keaton still has star like magic. Steenburgen’s Carol is a voice of reason even if she does tempt trouble with an old beau she runs into in Italy. Carol is terrified that her husband at home (Craig T. Nelson), who’s had a heart attack. will misbehave while she’s away. Mostly this involves him eating bacon behind her back.

Even though Holderman gives each actress her own moments, Fonda is his main focus. The two time Oscar winner can do anything and make it look right. At the foot of the Spanish steps in Rome she allows the other women adorn her with a cheap silk sash that says “Bride to Be” and a bridal bonnet that Fonda wears with aplomb. It’s very funny. When she finally gets to her big speech at the climax of the film, all the silliness of the comedy is removed like too much make up, and she digs into the depths of drama. She makes Vivian, who’s seemed a little two dimensional, a human. It’s lovely.

Steenburgen wrote the closing song in the film, “Anywhere with You,” and it’s sung by all four women. After Diane Warren’s all star song for Fonda’s “80 for Brady,” this is also a potential Oscar nominee. (PS Bette Midler’s new cover of “Mambo Italiano” is a winner, too.)

So what next, Diane asks at the end of the movie? What’s their next adventure? If “Book Club 2” hits, as I think it might, with the mainstream audience, we’ll be seeing a third installment with this gang.

Focus Features went all out last night with big NY premiere, followed by a snazzy party at Tavern on the Green. Ted Danson accompanied his wife, Steenburgen. Bergen came with daughter Chloe and pal, Diane Sawyer. Oscar nominee Judd Hirsch turned up, as did “Succession” star David Rasche. “Brady Bunch” icon Eve Plumb walked the red carpet. Music mogul Clive Davis came with a few guests, which floored his old friend, Fonda. Another Candice, Bushnell, turned up with cosmetics guru Peter Thomas Roth. (The balance of the audience seemed like it consisted of “influencers.” I wish premieres would stop stuffing the theaters with “influencers” and start inviting smart guests again! We miss those days! )

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedmanhttps://www.showbiz411.com
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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