‘Book Club’ is nothing more than your typical romantic comedy with an older-than-average cast. That’s what makes it special.
The box office this weekend belongs to Deadpool 2. With Ryan Reynolds’s latest superhero meta-movie expected to knock Avengers: Infinity War out of the top spot at the box office, the cultural conversation – dominated by Avengers for the better part of a month now – will finally shift to find other movies worth discussing. And while it will earn nowhere near the totals of Deadpool, some not-insignificant part of America will seek out Book Club over the next four days, a movie starring a veritable embarrassment of Hollywood icons like Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, and Andy Garcia. Variety even has Book Club grossing anywhere between $7 and $10 million over its opening weekend, not far off from the Paddington 2s and Annihilations of the movie world.
And you know what? It’ll deserve every penny. There’s nothing earth-shattering about the premise or the execution of the film – wherein a group of seniors discover 50 Shades of Grey and enjoy a collective sexual awakening – but Book Club proves that a talented group of actors can overcome even the most tired gags. What’s more, it proves that Hollywood should take a closer look at ensemble films driven by older casts. As slight as the film may be there, there’s something potent about the performers and narratives on display. The title says it all: there should be more movies like Book Club in Hollywood. Let’s break down all the reasons why.
There are, of course, very practical reasons for Hollywood to cater to the elder demographic. The general improvement in life expectancy over the past few decades has seen more Americans maintaining an active lifestyle later; many elders are also maintaining their independence well into their retirement, creating a void for social activities that are typically accounted for in retirement communities. There’s also a good chance that older audiences still place additional value on the moviegoing experience itself. According to the 2017 MPAA study, the 60+ crowd accounted for the second-highest age group share of both moviegoers and tickets sold, behind only the 25-39 demographic. For as much as we wind ourselves in circles discussing the importance of MoviePass, seniors continue to play a big role in Hollywood’s fortunes to little fanfare.
That being said, there’s more to movies like Book Club than just the demographics of the audience. For as much as Book Club may get bogged down in generic storylines and half-clever sex jokes, there’s no denying that this cast of 70-somethings has hardly lost a step. Each actor is essentially working through a greatest hits collection – offering an aged version of the onscreen personality that made them famous, to begin with – but rather than saddle the film with extra-textual baggage, this approach frees Keaton and company to riff freely on their own star power. We don’t need to know the background of each character because we’ve spent the last 40 years watching these performers grow and evolve in real-time. The backstory is the actor herself.
It’s also impressive how quickly Book Club disposes of the idea that a group of senior actors coming together could be a gimmick. We’re not used to seeing these many elder actors onscreen together; even the most nuanced movies tend to set aside only one or two roles for the father or mother character and show them only interacting with a younger crowd. Here we are simply treated to a group of people interacting with their peers, and the younger actors that do pop up – a pair of adult children doting on their mother or a dim-witted (but well-meaning) second wife – tend to be one-dimensional and clueless. When Andy Garcia and Keaton flirt up a storm or Don Johnson takes a trip down memory lane with Jane Fonda, there’s no need to throw out qualifiers about age to describe their performances. They’re just good, and it makes you wonder which filmmaker will be the first to provide us with an elder hangout movie that eschews generic plot devices like geriatric heists.
The most important element is how Book Club does not treat age as an obstacle to overcome. The cast and crew of Book Club seem deeply invested in depicting retirement as an adjustment, not a conclusion, to your adult life. While the characters speak freely about the changes they’ve had to make now that they’re in their seventies – especially when it comes to matters of sex – these changes haven’t made them less than they were before. It’s easy to knock Book Club as a Garry Marshall movie at double the age, but even that bit of snark does underscore how many of the storylines are focused on things less specific to the characters’ ages. Fear of intimacy, fear of putting yourself back out there, and fear of complacency are themes that resonate just as well for twenty-somethings, as they do for retirees. You could almost say that what makes Book Club so generic is also what makes it kind of special.
So yeah, maybe Book Club is ultimately a harmless bit of studio fluff, but I say bring on more ensemble casts of seniors and pave the way for countless movies starring our favorite actors of yesteryear. If the overall message of Book Club is that life doesn’t stop when you turn 70, then it also makes a pretty compelling argument that Hollywood careers shouldn’t stop at that age, either. I know I’d gladly sit through a sequel.