VERDICT: The talent outshines the writing, but these travel companions make for a breezy Italian trip.
Almost nothing happens in Book Club: The Next Chapter, but in a movie like this, that’s somewhat by design. We don’t want to see Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen travel to Italy and get caught up in international espionage or a jewel heist; we want to see them try on dresses, knock back prosecco, and crack wise in front of postcard-perfect vistas.
The wisecracks could be wiser, admittedly, but there’s nothing terribly wrong with this airy, utterly innocuous, still charming Mother’s Day treat.
The Next Chapter opens in a way that’s all too rare for contemporary pop culture — it acknowledges the COVID-19 pandemic, as the quartet of pals continue their regular book-club meetings via Zoom. Over the course of the lockdown, federal judge Sharon (Bergen) retires from the court, chef Carol (Steenburgen) closes her restaurant (and nurses husband Bruce, played by Craig T. Nelson, through a heart attack), while Diane (Keaton) and Vivian (Fonda) get to spend time canoodling with the boyfriends they picked up in the previous film, Mitchell (Andy Garcia) and Arthur (Don Johnson), respectively.
After they get vaccinated and finally meet up in person for the first time in a couple years, Viv has news: Arthur has proposed, and she’s said yes, despite a lifelong aversion to the shackles of matrimony. Since Carol recently found her old planner for a vacation to Italy the foursome had intended to take years ago, she decides the universe is telling them to take that trip now, as a bachelorette party. Off they go with their rollerbags — we’re meant to believe that Viv, a clotheshorse who makes jokes about her own intricate makeup regimen, can travel abroad for a week with a single piece of luggage — to Rome and points beyond.
In the eternal city, the other women surprise Viv with a trip to a couturier to pick out her wedding dress; everyone gets into the spirit of things and samples the goods, except for Diane, who eschews the bridal gowns but instead tries on the most Diane Keaton ensemble that ever Diane Keaton–ed. Then it’s off to Venice where their luggage is stolen, but it’s OK, since it just means they get to buy more outfits. Carol reconnects with culinary-school classmate Gianni (Vincent Riotta, House of Gucci) while Sharon hooks up with the charming Ousmane (Hugh Quarshie, The Son) and exchanges barbs with the local police chief (Giancarlo Giannini).
(Of interest to cineastes will be the reteaming of Bergen and Giannini, who last crossed paths in Lina Wertmuller’s 1978 drama The End of the World in Our Usual Bed on a Night Full of Rain. One can only imagine what the politically-minded auteur would make of this fluffy piece of wealth porn.)
As travelogues go, The Next Chapter makes for glossy escapism, with cinematographer Andrew Dunn (Love Again) serving up Italy at its most sun-soaked and tourist-welcoming. The cast is certainly game, if more than occasionally trying too hard. They’re clearly aware of how slight the jokes are (director Bill Holderman and Emma Simms once again share script duties for this sequel), and as such, they tend to lean heavily into the ponderous double entendres — Fonda, in particular — like they were Dean Martin in a Matt Helm movie. (On Grace and Frankie and elsewhere, Fonda has proven she still knows her way around a ribald line, but here she italicizes the dialogue before grinding on it, just so we know a naughty joke is being told.)
Even if the verbal humor often lands with a thud, Book Club: The Next Chapter offers up some memorable physical gags, from the exasperated faces of an increasingly annoyed string quartet to Bergen’s wild mop of just-had-sex hair, a callback to the first film’s back-seat rendezvous. (A tip of the hat, and the back-comb, to Bergen’s hairstylist Serena Radaelli.)
It should be no surprise that this all leads to a wedding, of sorts, and the final romantic declarations by Fonda, Johnson, Keaton, and Garcia are all quite lovely — so much so, in fact, that it would have been better for Holderman and Simms to trust the sincerity of their characters rather than to saddle them with hacky jokes about small penises on classical sculpture. A cast this talented deserves nothing less, even if they all got a free, and apparently breathtaking, trip to Italy.
Director: Bill Holderman
Screenwriters, producers: Bill Holderman and Erin Simms
Cast: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Giancarlo Giannini, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson
Executive producers: Brad Weston, Trish Hofmann, Enzo Sisti, Andrew Duncan
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
Production design: Stefano Maria Ortolani
Costume design: Stefano De Nardis
Editing: Doc Crotzer
Music: Tom Howe
Sound: Maurizio Argentieri, Ricardo Righini, production sound mixers
Production companies: Focus Features presents in association with Fifth Season, an Apartment Story production
In English, 107 minutes