Gray Matters

Book Club

by George Wolf

Book Club offers up a boatload of veteran Oscar winners and nominees, but limps to its final chapter as a ninety minute catch-22. So many roles for senior stars: good! What this movie makes of those roles: not so much.

Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen are Diane, Vivian, Sharon, and Carol, lifelong friends who began a monthly book club back in the 70s with the scandalous Fear of Flying.

With all four friends now comfortable in their golden years, the randy Vivian chooses Fifty Shades of Grey as the group’s next assignment. The girls are a bit hesitant at first but right on cue, Christian and Anna’s naughty romps reignite some fires down below.

Laughing at older people being sexual is beyond lazy, it’s ignorant. Thankfully director/co-writer Bill Holderman, in his debut feature, does seem actually interested in laughing more with his stars than at them.

But too many of those laughs are leftovers from every episode of Three’s Company, when Mr. Roper overhears Jack and Chrissy in the bedroom saying something like “It’s not big enough!” while we know they were just trying to hang a curtain rod the whole time! Ribaldry!

While the ladies juggle possible boyfriends (Richard Dreyfuss, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson) and a disinterested husband (Craig T. Nelson), contrived antics and double entendres go straight to the unfunny bone.

If you were checking off boxes, all the rich, white characters and romantic fantasies would seem like Nancy Meyers material. But Book Club can’t dig any more than surface deep, and even with all this talent, it never shows the confidence in character that elevates Meyers’s best (It’s Complicated, Something’s Gotta Give).

And then, a surprisingly subtle metaphor built around the comeback of vinyl albums gives you reason to believe Holderman’s heart is in the right place here, he’s just in over his head.

 

Not So Young and Restless

Youth

by Hope Madden

Like writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 Oscar winner The Great Beauty, his latest effort, Youth, offers a visually sumptuous rumination on aging and regret.

Michael Caine leads a marvelous cast as Fred Ballinger, a retired composer who’s done with life. He’s wasting time at a luxurious Swiss hotel, sharing a room with his daughter (Rachel Weisz) and hanging out with his longtime pal Mick (Harvey Keitel).

Keitel and Caine shine. A fragile, passionate Keitel delivers his strongest performance in decades as the over-the-hill filmmaker grasping for one last “testament.” Meanwhile, the more restrained Caine is no less heartbreaking. Together they tease out a lived-in friendship that’s a bittersweet joy to watch.

Weisz, equal parts vulnerability and fire, joins a delightfully sly Paul Dano in support of the geriatric leads, all of them part of an unusual and high-brow population at this resort.

A parade of images, both grotesque and gorgeous – and the absurdity of that mixture – is the essence of the film. Sorrentino’s channeling a couple of compatriots with this one. You see the influence of Fellini in many ways, as Sorrentino gives life to poet Pavese’s quote, “The closing years of life are like the end of a masquerade party, when the masks are dropped.”

He’s helped immeasurably by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, whose lens finds glamour and decay in equal measure, giving the film a dreamy cinematic quality. David Lang’s evocative score emphasizes the hypnotic quality of the visuals. It’s a visual and aural feast, though the concept that aging men see lost vitality encapsulated solely in the image of beautiful young women is wearisome.

This is a film marked, more than anything, by one concentrated feeling: longing. Sorrentino captures this beautifully, and his cast is more than capable of breathing life into characters saddled with a yearning for what is lost.

Segues into elegantly whimsical moments of fantasy are particularly enjoyable, but Sorrentino’s greatest triumph here is the sucker punch awaiting audience and characters alike with the introduction of Jane Fonda’s character.

A salty, aging diva, Fonda offers a swift kick to all this languid, self-congratulatory cinematic nonsense. She’s a blistering triumph, garish and glorious.

There are slow spots and questionable indulgences, but Youth, with the help of a stellar veteran cast, showcases something rarely offered in modern film – the power of age.

Verdict-3-5-Stars