‘Book Club’ Film Review: Women-of-a-Certain-Age Sex Comedy Has Poignancy Beneath the Pratfalls

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It’s a credit to TV’s greater curiosity and openmindedness that when I beheld the four stars of “Book Club” — actresses ranging in age from 65 to 80 — my thoughts turned to how recently I’d seen them on their respective shows or in headlines about their upcoming series.

The ensemble romantic comedy benefits enormously from Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen keeping their comedic and dramatic muscles warmed up (though a stiffer Candice Bergen has her bravura moments, too). None of the women are asked to do anything too strenuous in “Book Club,” but their collective charisma — along with their male co-stars’ — add up to an irresistible charmfest.

The premise of “Book Club” sounds, to be honest, excruciatingly dumb: A quartet of elderly friends are inspired by the “50 Shades of Grey” books to spice up their sex lives. But first-time director Bill Holderman, who penned the script with Erin Simms, smartly adds a pinch of salt to the sweetness to amplify both sides of the flavor spectrum.

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The film’s aspirational, 60-is-the-new-40 fantasies feel grounded enough in emotional truths and aging concerns that the most unrealistic thing about these literate ladies, who deliver guffaw-worthy lines about Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” is that they never once mock “50 Shades” author E.L. James’ atrocious prose.

“Book Club” opens with an awkwardly Photoshopped snapshot of the four main characters in their youth, clinging to their copies of Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying.” Now a few years shy of 70, all but one feels erotically adrift. The exception is commitment-phobic Vivian (Fonda), a luxury hotel owner (in attention-grabbing animal prints) who’s happy as a lifelong bachelorette but finds herself drawn to an old boyfriend (Don Johnson) who’s visiting Los Angeles.

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The others are in various stages of sexual shutdown. The most resistant to an erotic rekindling is federal judge Sharon (Bergen), who internet-stalks her ex-husband (Ed Begley, Jr.) and his decades-younger new fiancée and seemingly hasn’t been on a date since her divorce 18 years ago. Chef Carol (Steenburgen), the only one friend still married, struggles with her husband’s (Craig T. Nelson) utter lack of interest in sex.

Widowed homemaker Diane (Keaton, in a first-rate set of her signature androgynous garb) is needled by her condescending daughters (Katie Aselton and Alicia Silverstone) to move to Scottsdale, where she can be stuffed into the basement and supervised 24/7. Diane shows resistance even before she meets a stranger on a plane (a positively smoldering Andy Garcia) who’s willing to show her everything she missed out on during her lackluster marriage. Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn make brief appearances, but somehow Sam Elliott does not.

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To be sure, “Book Club” has more goofy gags than it does witticisms. An arrow on a plant moisture meter twitches from “dry” to “wet” when a character gets lost in Christian Grey’s Red Room, and Nelson’s character is marched into several situations fly-first after a Viagra accident leaves him fuming and erect. The cast is just as game for the broad humor as it is for the emotional beats; the latter’s familiarity doesn’t detract from its poignancy.

As movingly as each character’s romantic and/or familial storyline wraps up, though, I wish the core cast had a few more scenes to themselves. They share such an easygoing chemistry — and the inevitable scene where the friends diagnose one another on what they’re doing wrong hints at such layers of friendship — that it felt disappointing that their decades-long bond wasn’t the focus of the movie. The men are a treat. But there isn’t quite enough of the women to comprise a feast.

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‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ Review: Kate Beckinsale Bewitches a Manhattan Millennial

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Bad-movie lovers tend to be strict auteurists, following the careers of directors like Uwe Boll, Tommy Wiseau or Michael Bay from one catastrophe to another. Once again, however, screenwriters get short shrift, and anyone focusing on the director’s chair will be missing out on the work of Allan Loeb, a writer who has, in the course of one year, delivered a trifecta of utterly artificial fake-deep dramas that are must-sees for connoisseurs of the cinema’s best-worst.

December gave us Loeb’s “Collateral Beauty,” in which Will Smith stacked dominoes, argued with Time and Death, and tried to find deep meaning in the film’s clunky title. Earlier this year came “The Space Between Us,” where a fragile human boy living on Mars travels to Earth to find his true love, whether or not his skeleton can handle it.

And now there’s “The Only Living Boy in New York”; even though this new turkey avoids the fantasy and sci-fi elements of those previous films, it’s pure Loeb all the way, from the consistently unbelievable dialogue to his favorite screenwriting device, the “shocking” third-act reveal that proves more ludicrous than illuminating.

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There’s an art to making audiences care about the problems of glossy Manhattanites who are suffering photogenically in their Architectural Digest-ready apartments, but neither Loeb nor director Marc Webb (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) seems to have the first idea of how to make these characters anything but insufferable.

Our ostensible hero is Thomas (Callum Turner, “War & Peace”), a whiny post-adolescent who revels in supposedly pithy observations along the lines of “New York’s most vibrant neighborhood is Philadelphia.” He’s drifting through life, kvetching over the fact that the beautiful Mimi (Kiersey Clemons, “Dope”) is too smart to get involved with the likes of him. His publisher dad Ethan (Pierce Brosnan) wants Thomas at least to move back into the family’s palatial flat, mainly to be close to mother Judith (Cynthia Nixon), whose supposed fragility is the subject of far too many scenes.

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Around the same time that the boozy, mysterious W.F. (Jeff Bridges) moves into Thomas’ Lower East Side apartment building and becomes the kid’s father confessor, Thomas spots Ethan stepping out with his mistress Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). (The affectedness of that aspirated “h” makes a perfect metaphor for this entire production.) Johanna quickly catches the kid stalking her, but in no time they’ve become lovers, despite the fact that she hasn’t broken things off with Ethan.

In true Loeb fashion, there are unsurprising surprises and unearned happy endings ahead for this crew, but along the way we must endure countless sequences of Big Apple literati (played by the well-cast likes of Wallace Shawn and Debi Mazar) waxing nostalgic on how great the city used to be before it lost its soul, blah blah blah. Worse still is that the movie makes Thomas its title character — and oh yes, people say that title aloud, more than once — simply because he too makes these observations, as though they weren’t currently being expressed in every coffeehouse in the East Village.

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This is a movie full of characters you would walk away from at a cocktail party, engaging in the flattest brand of smart banter imaginable. The excessive narration by Bridges kicks off with an observation about how young people always declare their love in the rain because they saw it in movies; that idea would hold more weight if “The Only Living Boy in New York” didn’t open up the clouds every time something remotely dramatic happens.

Turner is an engaging actor, but here he relies too much on a pair of eyeglasses that he clearly thinks are Clark Kent-ing his Superman-liness. Generally speaking, the cast far outshines the material, particularly Beckinsale; history will mark that she deserved every award under the sun, including the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, for her work in “Love & Friendship,” but here she’s reduced to a pneumatic intellectual fantasy figure.

Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (“Gifted”) shoots the film handsomely, but finds no texture or light we haven’t seen in a thousand other movies about privileged New Yorkers. Still, he’s blameless here. And so are Simon & Garfunkel, whose song will long outlive the movie that borrowed its title.

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‘Evening at the Talk House’ Theater Review: Wallace Shawn Gets Serious, Matthew Broderick Stays Cool

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Wallace Shawn writes one truly brilliant moment in his new play, “Evening at the Talk House,” which opened Thursday under the auspices of the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York.

Matthew Broderick plays a not very successful playwright who has turned himself into a very successful  TV writer. Speaking to a server (Annapurna Sriram) at the Talk House, one of those musty theater-district hangouts that all but disappeared late in the last century, Broderick’s writer character reveals why he didn’t cast a failed actor (played by Shawn) 10 years ago in his last Broadway outing, something with the unpromising title of “Midnight in a Clear With Moon and Stars.”

Late in “Talk House,” the writer complains about the actor not being very good at his craft, and also there’s something about his silly smile: “A lot of people found that charming, but I didn’t, I must say, I thought it was just an awful smile. I mean, I suppose I’m saying that I happened to find him quite unappealing.”

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Shawn the playwright is clearly referencing Shawn the actor here, and the line delivers the intended laughter of acknowledgement from the New Group audience. For some people, this playwright and actor epitomizes the inverse of that line from the Kander and Ebb song “New York, New York.” Shawn is the kind of quirky acquired-taste talent who can only make it here.

“Evening at the Talk House” exposes the hardened but still bruised skin of creative people who toil in the theater, only to be done in by the constant rejection. Most of them have moved on to other careers, but a few here are now working in television, which apparently is a much more forgiving place, according to “Talk House.”

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Broderick is especially good at never losing his benign cool while delivering wicked character critiques that savage like an assassin’s bullets. And Shawn and director Scott Elliott are especially adept at scene-setting in the play’s first few minutes. Where he goes off the rails is with his twist, which recalls a famed “Twilight Zone” episode from 1964. In “Masks,” family members don Mardi Gras masks that reveal their greed and nastiness only to find they can’t remove the masks at the end of the evening.

That conceit is far more inventive than Shawn’s. Also, once the twist is revealed in “Masks,” the show is over, after half an hour. The 100-minute “Talk House” meanders on and on after the big reveal, with characters being alternately nonplussed and nonchalant.

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Two characters (played by Jill Eikenberry and John Epperson) sing and play the piano. Shawn’s character delivers a long reading from “Midnight in a Clear with Moon and Stars,” which reveals, unintentionally perhaps, why it had a very short run on Broadway. Why the “Midnight” company decides to return to the “Talk House” to celebrate the play’s 10th anniversary is the much bigger mystery that goes unsolved.

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