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Maybe read a book instead.

Fifty Shades Grayed

The ladies of the Book Club
The ladies of the Book Club

Book Club is the kind of movie that would feel at home on the Hallmark Channel — perhaps as one of those extra-special, high-profile movies that kicks off a typical Hallmark season, such as Spring Love or Love Blossoms Again. In fairness, it’d be even better offered under something new, something like a theme called Hallmark After Dark, serving up a slightly more risqué view of love and dating and romance “after hours” (such as at 7 p.m. Mountain Time).

Risqué? Book Club stars Jane Fonda (80, Barbarella) as Vivian, a rich hotelier; Diane Keaton (72, Annie Hall) as Diane, a woman who’s watched Annie Hall a couple dozen times too many; Candice Bergen (72, TV’s Murphy Brown) as Sharon, a federal judge who goes home to a cat named Ginsberg; and Mary Steenburgen (65, Time After Time) as Carol, a woman desperately trying to get it on with her preoccupied husband.

With a cast like that, how risqué can it get? Well, there’s a sight gag involving a large dose of Viagra unwittingly consumed by Carol’s husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson, 74, Poltergeist). And there are loads of juvenile double-entendres and sexual metaphors spouted off by the coffee klatch that’s started reading the Fifty Shades trilogy as a way to reinvigorate and inspire their dusty love lives.

These four women have been in their little book club for 40 years, religiously meeting month after month in their cozy Santa Monica homes. That represents 480 books. They should be much more interesting and learned ladies, but the screenplay by Bill Holderman (age unknown, A Walk in the Woods) and first-time screenwriter Erin Simms (in fairness, 41) repeatedly settles for the lowest common denominator instead of aiming for something higher.

Do You (and Maybe Him)

Falling in lock-step with other supposedly inspirational tripe like Eat Pray Love, Book Club throws out the occasional bumper sticker wisdom, such as, “It’s okay to be happy” and “I know I’m getting older, but I’m still learning.”

It also goes through lots of couples conversations that reveal cutesy insights into the characters. No doubt this will feel like one big, warm comforter to audience members looking for people who’ve loved and lost, but still live remarkably comfortable lives that buffer any sense of loneliness (and reality).

To wit, Sharon hasn’t had a sexual connection in 18 years and Vivian hasn’t had an emotional connection in 40 years. Vivian prefers straight-up non-committal sex in order to avoid getting hurt. As for Diane, she has two grown daughters in Arizona. Both insist Diane moves into the slip-proof basement of daughter Jill (Alicia Silverstone, 41, Clueless).

Egged on by the sexploits of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, the ladies find new motivation to get out there and make things happen — but romance enters their lives by serendipity more than anything else.

The only one who truly braves the cold, harsh world of actively finding romance is Sharon, who creates a Bumble account and finds suitors in the likes of Richard Dreyfuss (71, Jaws). On Bumble (a real online dating site), women are supposed to make the first move. But Book Club isn’t about reality and here Sharon is nothing more than the recipient of attention, hence the expression of interest from the perennial one-note character actor Wallace Shawn (75, The Princess Bride), who is clearly out of her league.

The other ladies have romance dumped in their laps.

Vivian’s old flame from 40 years ago, Arthur (Don Johnson, 68, TV’s Miami Vice), appears by chance at her ritzy hotel. (Such irony. Johnson was supposedly unhappy to hear his real-life daughter, Dakota, landed the role of Anastasia in the Fifty Shades movies.) Diane sits next to Mitchell (Andy Garcia, 62, The Untouchables) on one of her routine flights to visit her daughters. He’s rich. Really rich. And he’s a pilot. With his own plane.

As for Carol, she’s got her husband. Her challenge is to rekindle the romance that’s settled into a sweet, loving, but not altogether affectionate routine devoid of physical contact.

Emotion Control

While all the machinations unfold, Book Club reveals itself as nothing more than a harmless, generic (and extremely #sowhite) exercise in reaffirming the need to live while one has life. Just as tidily as all the romantic offerings appear, there’s the predictable amount of doubt and drama. After all, nothing on Earth makes the irrational more completely rational than romance.

Then, as the movie goes through the motions of wrapping things up, everything is tidily brought to a happy ending (oh, apologies for the double entendre) like a very special two-hour episode of The Love Boat.

It’s one of those movies which offers plenty of time for the mind to wander and explore the thought processes going on behind the scenes.

Most conspicuous and thought-provoking is Jane Fonda’s jarring hairdo. A hair-coloring and shaping masterpiece, it deserves some sort of special Oscar (and it’s the only Oscar consideration this fluff piece gets). The other ladies participate in this charade as well, but in a more restrained fashion. Diane, for example, goes for a more sensible frosted tint that’s classy and respectable.

As for the guys, wow. They’re mainly flabby and grayed, and most have generous bald spots.

All told, the movie’s ambitions are honorable, but the execution here is stale. The theme of finding the courage to put oneself out there is noble enough and there’s just barely enough earnest life-affirming giddiness to almost make the movie good.

Still, this Book Club gets a swipe to the left.