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.


Song Sung Blue

Song One

By George Wolf

Song One is a lot like the indie folk music that permeates it: pleasant, well-intentioned, and a bit bland.

Anne Hathaway stars as Franny, an anthropology student working overseas who must rush back home to New York after a family tragedy. Her brother Henry, an aspiring musician, is struck by a cab while walking in traffic, and Franny returns to find him in a coma, fighting for his life.

Searching Henry’s apartment for familiar items that might help revive him, Franny finds concert tickets to see a folkie named James Forester (Johnny Flynn). She attends the show, and waits in the autograph line to tell Forester about her brother’s admiration for him. The conversation sparks a sweet friendship, and James is soon visiting Henry and hanging out with Franny and her ex-hippie mom (Mary Steenburgen).

Will friendship turn to romance? Will James find inspiration to cure his songwriter’s block? Bet you can guess.

It’s the debut feature for writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland, and predictability is not what ultimately keeps Song One from resonating. Yes, the terrain is plenty familiar, but this love letter to the power of music suffers most from contrivance and precious few powerful moments.

Flynn’s performance is tender but tentative, and though is he obviously a talented musician, the original songs elicit little more than the nod you give that guy at a party who suddenly finds a guitar. He’s in way over his head alongside Hathaway, who dials it down but can’t keep her natural talent from casting a big shadow over her co star.

There is some promise here. The film is well shot and Barker-Froyland often seems to sense how thin the drama is, pumping it up with enough good intentions to keep any eye-rolling at bay. When her storytelling talent catches up with her technical skills, then she may have a hit on her hands.