Book Club: The Next Chapter, the follow-up to the popular 2018 romantic comedy that defied ageist Hollywood marketing logic to become a $100 million moneymaker, is a fizzy, funny and frequently wistful comedy featuring a movie royalty quartet looking great and having fun in exotic locales. What’s not to like?
Returning to what made the first film a hit—namely the camaraderie and command of Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen, clearly having a ball challenging age cliches—writer-director Bill Holderman and writer Erin Simms, both of whom also produced the picture, take their quartet on the road for a glossy trip to Italy, photographed in all its glory, the screenwriting duo crafting a sweet ode to friendship and fate.
If the original picture introduced the septuagenarian, southern Californian book club members embarking on an amusingly active interpretation of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, the new outing, opening on a pandemic-era Zoom consideration of Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist, is less libidinal liberation and more sisterhood solidarity, and what a joy to see four such regal actresses (who spent only 17-minutes onscreen together last time out) headline this winsome, picturesque movie.
Returning in Book Club: The Next Chapter are avowed single hotel magnate Vivian (a glamorous Fonda), involved with long-time boyfriend Arthur (Don Johnson); sardonic, retired federal judge and voice of reason Sharon (the wry Candice Bergen); commitment shy widow Diane (Keaton, doing Keaton with aplomb) and airline pilot beau Mitchell (Andy Garcia); and restauranteur Carol (radiant Mary Steenburgen), who lost her eatery during the pandemic and now worries, nonstop, about husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), nursing a heart condition.
Picture turns on an early announcement from Vivian that she’s become engaged to Arthur, by all accounts a great catch of a partner. But for lifelong solo flier Vivian, the possibility of being tethered by such formality creates a conundrum; does she really want it? Nonetheless, the ladies head off to Italy for an extended bachelorette getaway of sorts, promptly having their luggage stolen which, to our good fortune, means they must replace their wardrobes (and replace them they do, in eye popping style).
It doesn’t take long for the group to shed their angst in favor of a little brindiamo alla vita, notably in a fairy-tale bridal dress shop sequence as each actress gets fitted in a variety of wedding white ensembles delivering genuine star power sheen, the eighty-five-year-old Fonda extravagantly decked out courtesy of costume designer Stefano De Nardis.
A chance tête-à-tête in a hotel bar between Sharon and a handsome professor named Ousmane (Hugh Quarshire) finds the group crashing a garden dinner party revealing—voila!—Carol’s former youthful paramour, now a successful chef named Gianni (Vincent Riotta), the recipient of a ribald joke about, of all things, his massive meatballs, and who almost awakens Carol’s long-extinguished what might have been spark. It also gives Quarshire a chance to perform a good fun Italian version of Laura Branigan’s now-classic Gloria.
In the midst of such enjoyable shenangians, the legendary Italian star Giancarlo Giannini (who starred with Bergen in Lina Wertmuller’s 1978 A Night Full of Rain) turns up, lending film history gravitas and inspired authority as a comically ineffectual police inspector doing a tap dance around Bergen’s dismissals.
The picture’s comic hijinks—and why not with such deft comediennes?—come on fast and funny. In addition to the stolen luggage there are missing ashes, a car that breaks down somewhere outside Florence, a night spent in a local jail cell and a tickling, extended bit involving overworked wedding musicians. All go down easily. Yet despite the fast-paced lightness of tone, there are genuinely romantic flourishes as well, the final stretch delivering a knockout scene so honestly crafted by Holderman and Simms that it all but delivers the film.
The central issue at stake is whether Vivian, fiercely independent, can actually go through with saying “I do,” and Fonda gets considerable mileage from such handwringing, leading to a marvelous moment between the star and a winning, would-be betrothed Johnson. Fonda’s push-pull between individuality and convention, a seamless merger of character, persona and star, is richly written and performed. It’s one of several warmly insightful moments—others involve a veranda-set heart-to-heart between Keaton and Fonda, a late picture reunion between Keaton and Garcia and the surprise location of a wedding-day telephone caller—providing the comedy a substantial lift of feeling.
No opportunity is wasted here to exploit the exotically inviting locales, from comically observing Roman antiquities (with particular, ahem, anatomical fixations) to cruising Venetian canals to road tripping beneath the Tuscan sun, affording Holderman and DP Andrew Dunn a prime opportunity to work in a romantically burnished palette that will undoubtedly drive an uptick in summer travel abroad.
While the first picture may have been about rediscovery and rebirth through unexpected intimacy, the new one is about being the master of one’s destiny, able to architect a life through reinvention, no matter the age. This is a declarative, universally appealing assertion in a breezy picture piqued with human comedy and truth—grab the life in front of you and make of it what you will, eat, drink, dance, laugh, fall into romance when it arrives, lean on friendships to get you through, take (or not take) chances and listen when tough love is offered, as it is here, with appealing old school regality.
Book Club: The Next Chapter is a lighthearted romp, but what heart it has.