‘Book Club: The Next Chapter’ Review: Cinema Pinot Grigio

Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen take a trip to Italy and don’t read as much in this comedy sequel.

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By Amy Nicholson

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The 2018 comedy “Book Club” had a simple, sturdy spine of a plot: Four longtime friends (Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen) power up their sexual prowess while panting over — and mocking — the best seller “Fifty Shades of Grey.” At some point during the brainstorming of “Book Club‌: The Next Chapter,” the returning director Bill Holderman and his co-screenwriter Erin Simms must have decided they could ditch the book gimmick. With a cast this beloved, who cares what they’re reading? This sequel opens with a formal quote from “The Alchemist” and, when pressed, mutters about how its author Paulo Coelho embraces fate. But that’s just a spaghetti-thin excuse to send the pals on a frenetic adventure through Italy with no time to crack open a paperback.

Since every woman found her bliss in the first film — Keaton with Andy Garcia, Fonda with Don Johnson, Steenburgen with Craig T. Nelson, and Bergen, the franchise’s merry M.V.P., inviting more gentlemen into her car’s back seat than an Uber driver — the running time is crowded with wacky, meaningless mishaps (stolen luggage, flat tires, pesky cops and other trivialities). Our close familiarity with the cast is the sole thing giving this fluff a sheen of emotional weight. When Keaton gazes at a Roman bust and cracks, “I had that perm in 1982,” we want to pipe up and say it’s actually more like her hairdo at the 1978 Oscars when she won for “Annie Hall.” Later, during a tipsy shopping montage, we spot her dream dress before she does — wide belt, black sequined turtleneck, flouncy polka dot skirt — and then wait eagerly to see her try it on.

The operative literary device is the double entendre. The ladies cavort through Rome, Venice and Tuscany cracking each other up eroticizing innocent words: meatballs, fanny packs, hip replacements, knee replacements and even the phrase, “I made pasta on a boat.” They’re salty, not sweet. As Fonda, playing a newly engaged hotelier, tours a potential wedding church with Bergen’s foulmouthed character on speakerphone, you half expect the priest to throw her out. (He seems to consider it.)

The film is at its best when absolutely nothing important is happening onscreen. The women guzzle Prosecco. They banter. They are adored by all, including young hunks on speeding mo-peds who force them to page through the only book that matters: an English-Italian dictionary. At one point, Steenburgen hoists an accordion to karaoke Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.” The leads share four Oscars, six Emmys, and 13 Golden Globes between them and have nothing left to prove beyond the value of charisma.

How interesting to compare this sequel and its spiritual sister, “80 for Brady” (released earlier this year, also co-starring Fonda), to the generic tough guy B-pictures that preoccupy so many male actors of their generation. While the men huff around with revolvers, the women have embraced the model of the old “Road to … ” series with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. It’s not dynamic cinema (and it’s not even legitimately good); it’s simply faces we enjoy enjoying themselves. The hangover sets in only when the film stirs in false suspense about its half-baked climax. The drag of herding these high jinks toward a resolution makes us want to cut and run. If there must be a third movie, just let the cast chug wine in real time.

Book Club: The Next Chapter
Rated PG-13 for salacious meatball references. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. In theaters.

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