Book Club: The Next Chapter is about four best friends who make wisecracks while holding up popular novels. They’re sort of like talk show hosts. Sally Rooney’s Normal People? “This title describes nobody I know,” quips retired federal judge Sharon (Candice Bergen).
A deliberately post-COVID sequel to the 2018 hit Book Club, this time the quartet of bibliophiles are off to Italy to celebrate the impending nuptials of hotelier Vivian (Jane Fonda). But things go awry, as they have their luggage stolen in Rome, encounter an old flame in Venice, and are jailed in Tuscany. Plus, Vivian is still deciding whether she’s ready to become a wife.
A Mount Rushmore cast of iconic comediennes elevates this otherwise mechanical story. Alongside Bergen and Fonda, Mary Steenburgen and Diane Keaton round out the club as ex-restauranteur Carol and Diane-Keaton-type Diane. The ever-present glasses of prosecco may tarnish the ladies’ decision-making, but, as Bergen often remarks, wine is the bliss that makes life worth living.
Frankly, Book Club: The Next Chapter is not the side-splitting hybrid of Murphy Brown, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Annie Hall and Jane Fonda’s Workout promised by the cast. Nonetheless, Book Club: The Next Chapter aims to prove these ladies can double any entendre. Italian cuisine is a particularly ripe subject for saucy euphemisms. The film sometimes feels like the bit in old Marx Brothers’ routines when the action pauses so Groucho can face the camera and competitively fire off one-liners. In one scene, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen comically misconstrue a chef’s invitation to view his cucina, taste his penne, and massage his meatballs. It’s a lot to handle but mostly harmless fun, ignoring one spicy joke about Mother Theresa.
Beyond shaggy references to Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, The Next Chapter does not contain much in the way of literary criticism. The film is nearer to a Vogue advertorial for the Italian tourism board—more White Lotus than Roberto Rossellini. A recurring cameo by Italian screen icon Giancarlo Giannini underscores this amiable superficiality, as do the Dean Martin tunes peppering the soundtrack.
Like a Ferrero Rocher, the film’s milk chocolate comedy shell conceals a hazelnut core of pure sentimentality. As challenges mount, the book club lose faith in their capabilities, prompting a third act structured around teary-eyed homilies on their achievements thus far. With the rest of the movie so glossy and gag-ridden, this mawkish turn struggles to entertain. The subplot of Diane Keaton scattering her husband’s ashes is an exception to this awkward tonal clash. Keaton’s odd authenticity, playing a character modelled on herself, pricks the prevailing artifice, bringing this widow’s tale into conversation with real experience.
Ultimately, Book Club: The Next Chapter sets out to be an easygoing hangout movie and fulfils the assignment. If Groucho Marx was alive today, he might say, “I would like to join this club.”
Then again, there’s a shot near the end of Candice Bergen surveying the Tuscan plains from the cockpit of a helicopter. It makes you wonder what the film might be if these ladies had a little more to do. Controversy aside, the brilliance of Diane Keaton’s partnership with Woody Allen is that Allen recognised the uniqueness of her comedic voice and put that voice to work in disparate settings, from the dystopic future (Sleeper) to the Napoleonic Wars (Love and Death). I would love to see the Book Club gang given that same latitude, reading, drinking, and fornicating their way through outer space or King Solomon’s tomb. Let’s see what happens in chapter three.