Book Club: The Next Chapter (2023) Review
CUTE AND HARMLESS, BUT
UNDERWHELMING AND LESS FOCUSED
In 2018, Book Club, a romantic comedy film, was released and brought with it the fun spin of four middle-aged women and their reading of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades novels. Directed by Bill Holderman, the film, which starred Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen, focuses on four longtime friends (Diane, Vivian, Sharon and Carol) who read Fifty Shades of Grey as part of their monthly book club, and subsequently begin to change on they view their own personal relationship with their spouses and / or dating experiences. While the movie received mixed thoughts and opinions from critics and moviegoers, Book Club was deemed a box office success, grossing over $104 million worldwide at the box office against its $14 million production budget. Given its modest results during its theatrical run, a sequel was eventually greenlit, but was pushed back several years, due to the on-going effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, five years after release of the first Book Club film, Paramount Pictures and director Bill Holderman returns to the female quartet of ladies with the release of Book Club: The Next Chapter. Does this “second chapter” offer something new and exciting or is it, more or less, the same thing and watered down for a messy viewing experience?
Longtime friends and book club members Diane (Diane Keaton), Vivian (Jane Fonda), Sharon (Candice Bergen), and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) have felt disconnected by the global pandemic for several years, finally ready to reunite in person and resurrect their “big plan” to take a trip to Italy. Concerned are shared amongst the group, including Carol close attentiveness to her husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), who’s recently recovering from a heart attack as well as Diane, who is trying to move on from her late husband and questioning her future with Mitchell (Andy Garcia). However, when Vivian accepts an unexpected marriage proposal from Arthur (Don Johnson), the four ladies pack their bags for Italy to celebrate the event with a bachelorette party. However, an innocent and sightseeing trip into the picturesque country goes awry soon enough, with the quartet dealing with their own personal challenges and unexpected temptations while traveling aboard.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
I do have to say that this movie was one of the few films that sort of “fell through the cracks” of myself doing a review for this movie. Yes, I do remember wanting to see it as it sort of had a feeling of a classic romantic comedy angle for a fun “Girls Night In” feeling. Personally, I did like the cast for this movie….I mean it had Keaton, Fonda, Bergen, and Steenburgen as the four female leads as well as having the likes of Garcia, Johnson, and Nelson as supporting players in the movie. Naturally, I knew that Book Club wasn’t going to break any type of new grounds in terms of storytelling and characters, but it sure looked fun enough to see for some entertainment value, which is why I decided to check the movie a week or two after its initial release. However, I kept pushing and pushing back getting around to writing up a movie review for it. I can’t remember why? I mean….I liked it for what it was and didn’t think it was bad or anything. I think I just wanted to do other movie reviews out there, so I kept on delayed doing one for Book Club to a point that I sort of never did it. Who knows….maybe I’ll eventually doing it as a “cinematic flashback” review of mine. In the end, I felt that Book Club should be taking for what it is a “face value” experience, which provide plenty of humorous bits of four aged women going through their own bouts of struggles and love, while tying it together with them reading the Fifty Shades trilogy that binds their encounters together. Again, nothing original, but still a good “fluff” piece.
This brings me back around to talk about Book Club: The Next Chapter, a 2023 romantic comedy film and the follow-up sequel to the 2018 film. Given the fact that the first film wasn’t exactly a box office success, it still managed enough to make a decent profit, which was probably why a sequel materialized a few years after. To me, I was a bit surprised when it was first announced as I didn’t anticipate a “next chapter” endeavor for Book Club, with my belief being that the movie as a sort of “one and done” project and didn’t require a sequel. Yet, one did materialize, with the project being set several years after the first movie and with a new location setting. I think my first look at the upcoming romantic comedy was when the film’s movie trailer appeared, which showcased footage from the sequel project. From the looks of it, it looked to be pretty much the same feeling as was the 2018 endeavor, which can be both a good and bad thing…. depending on how you look at it. Perhaps the most reassuring thing that I took away from the trailer was that the main principal cast (Keaton, Fonda, Bergen, and Steenburgen) were all coming back to reprise their roles. So, much like the original movie, I wasn’t expecting anything grand to be “blown away” by Book Club: The Next Chapter and planned on seeing it when it was scheduled to be release in May 2023. Unfortunately, due to my work schedule (and other more prominent movies out there), I didn’t get the chance to see the film during its theatrical run. Time passed and I actually had the chance a few months later to see the movie during my flight on vacation. Now, I’m ready to share my thoughts on this sequel romantic comedy. And what did I think of it? Well, it’s pretty much the same thing, which can be seeing as both good and bad. Despite having thinly sketched plot and a lot of “filler” moments within its stock-like characters, Book Club: The Next Chapter still manages to be memorable for its touching moments and fantastic leading ladies’ quartet that certainly do make the movie. Again, it’s nothing new or original, but still makes for another “fluff” piece of entertainment.
Book Club: The Next Chapter is directed by Bill Holderman, who previously directed the first Book Club movie as well as a producer on several other projects such as A Walk in the Woods and The Old Man & the Gun. Given his familiarity of working on the 2018 film, it seems like the most sensible and reasonable choice that Holderman would helm this particular project. In that regard, I think that it is quite beneficial towards the film itself, with Holderman approaching The Next Chapter with the same type of romantic comedy bravado and charm that many will be comfortable with and reassured while watching the feature. This, of course, makes this movie have the same type of feeling (both in tone and narrative presentation), which can be both good and bad. For the positives, Holderman certainly knows his target audience and keeps The Next Chapter from changing up the status quo formula and provides a feature film that light on dreariness and the seriousness and is filled humor and lightheartedness. Much like the characters, Holderman makes The Next Chapter be a continuation of what was established in the 2018 movie and provides an extension of the four female friends “next stage” in their lives; discovering more about their relationships that they are in and / or discovering more about themselves. It’s not quite as bizarrely humorous like the first one, but The Next Chapter does provide the quartet of friends going on a picturesque journey through the country of Italy, with Holderman making the film a somewhat “fish out of water” tale within the framework of a classic romantic comedy. In addition, Holderman, much like the first film, does make this sequel feel quite breezy and streamlined by keeping a nice and brisk pace throughout, which makes the picture’s runtime of 107 minutes (one hour and forty-seven minutes) go by fast. In the end, while not exactly the best sequel endeavor out there, Holderman makes The Next Chapter still very much a fun and lighthearted experience to be easily accessible to adults, who are looking for some mild laughs and sentimental.
For its presentation, The Next Chapter’s visual appeal is actually one of the film’s stronger attributes, with the production taking a very picturesque journey through various locations across Italy. While the backdrop of the first Book Club was decent enough to depict the suburbs of suburbia lifestyle dwellings, Holderman and his team take to Italy where the production was held for two months; capturing both the “sight and sounds” of Italian landscape for the feature. The result is something that definitely captures a very vivid background for the four women to bounce around throughout the course of the picture and makes for a cinematic “road trip” through Italy. Thus, the movie’s “behind the scenes” team, including Leonardo Grillo and Saverio Sammali (art direction), Stefano Maria Ortolani (production design), Chiara Balducci (set decorations), and Stefano De Nardis (costume design) for their efforts in bringing the movie’s world to life with such vibrancy and colorful manner that’s pleasing to the eye. Also, the cinematography work by Andrew Dunn certainly helps brings those Italian locales to life with several moments of sleek camera angles and usage of dramatic shots. Lastly, while the film’s score, which was composed by Tom Howe, is good and helps compliment the feature’s “lightheartedness” through its musical composition, the movie’s soundtrack is pretty good and boast plenty of familiar and catchy song that definitely are a “perfect fit” for this rom-com genre feeling as well as for the feature’s setting.
Unfortunately, The Next Chapter doesn’t really measure to be a solid follow-up endeavor and certainly does fail prey to numerous “sequel” problems along the way. Perhaps the most prevalent one that many will agree upon about this movie is the simple fact that the movie just simply feels too light on narrative substance. This, of course, derives from the feature’s script, which was written by Holderman as well as Erin Simms, and how very hollow it all is throughout the entire film. Of course, there is some good wholesome moments where characters bond, learn important lessons about their own personal struggles, and (of course) love, but it’s all rather just for “fluff”, with the actual substance that The Next Chapter being quite limp from the get-go. Situations arise as the four friends travel across Italy and, while intent for fun and humor, tend to lack a certain type of “cinematic bite”, even for the romantic comedy angle that the feature is framed into. To be even more honest, the movie itself comes across as being a little bit pointless to some degree. Of course, the moderate success that the first film offer help generate some leverage towards the sequel been greenlit, but, on the whole, The Next Chapter seems rather aimless and not as tightly woven together in comparison to its predecessor. Some scenes are rather boing and mundane, while other feels a bit fragmented as if some moments were removed to the cutting room floor. As such, the movie comes across rather bland to the touch and lukewarm in how everything is staged and executed.
In conjunction, the movie’s script doesn’t really challenge itself and ends up having a very predictable and formulaic nature throughout its runtime. To be fair, the first movie wasn’t exactly the most original or creative film of this genre and does suffer from a similar formula, but I wasn’t expecting something a bit more substance and strength found within the shaping of The Next Chapter. Sadly, that is not the case, with the script feeling too underwhelming at times and not digging deep enough to make sense. Plus, some of the written dialogue seems rather clunky and corny at times. Naturally, the acting talent involved helps elevate those particular awkward dialogue scenes, but it still comes off as a rather wooden and too forced. Certain sequences of sexual innuendo encounters are fun and bring some type of comedic levity, but seems rather poorly executed. Heck, those same moments take a bit more president than the actual plotting of the main narrative, which (in hindsight) is never a good thing. Overall, The Next Chapter isn’t bad or terrible, it’s just lacks focus and a lot more narrative substance on the storytelling bone of the script.
As a minor point of criticism, I would say that The Next Chapter doesn’t fully bring into the film’s namesake (book club) into much of the script. While the first one utilized the group of women reading E.L. James’s popular erotic Fifty Shades trilogy, this particular sequel doesn’t capitalize on the group reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. In truth, it almost feels like an afterthought, which is quite perplexing as the movie is called “Book Club” and one would think that the novel would play an important piece of the narrative. Sadly, it’s not.
The cast in The Next Chapter is sort of “mixed bag”, with some characters helping the feature’s likeability and others show the lack of substance of characterization beyond their initial setup. To be fair, no one in the entire film gives a “bad performance” or anything like that, but the thin script doesn’t exactly pan out correct for half of the character, which is never a good thing. Perhaps the best attribute that the movie has in its arsenal is the return of its four leading female leading actresses, with Diane Keaton (The Family Stone and Something’s Gotta Give), Jane Fonda (Monster-in-Law and Barbarella), Candice Bergen (Murphy Brown and Miss Congeniality), and Mary Steenburgen (Elf and Step Brothers) as Diane, Vivian, Sharon, and Carol respectfully. The movie clearly defines their personal hangouts and dilemma accordingly throughout the movie. For Diane, it’s about making sure that she and Mitchell are still computable in their relationship. For Vivan, it’s about the uncertain feeling about getting married to Arthur. For Sharon, it’s about if she needs that “soulmate connection” within another. Lastly, Carol is worrying excessively over Bruce’s health. So, yes, it’s crystal clear as to what the “struggles” are for these four women and they each discover something about that dilemma by the end. Unfortunately, these characterizations are stock-like and rudimentary, which definitely needed a lot more “oomph” within their substance (as mentioned above). Still, what helps elevate those problems is the screen presence that the four actresses carry in how they deliver their lines and interact with the rest of the cast. Of course, Fonda and Bergen stand out the most with former being a bit more forward and crasser, while the latter nails the sarcastic tone in her dialogue delivery. Likewise, Keaton is good as the “worry wort” of the group and handles it well, while Steenburgen makes for a compelling second “worried / concerned” role. Plus, it also helps that the four actresses get along beautifully, which is perfectly represented in their on-screen chemistry with each other. Overall, while the personal character journeys are predictable and formulaic by nature, the cast is visibly having fun making this movie and makes the whole endeavor amusing to watch just for that reason.
Sadly, the supporting male characters from the first film, including actor Andy Garcia (Ocean’s Eleven and The Godfather Part III) as Mitchell, actor Craig T. Nelson (Coach and The Incredibles) as Bruce, and actor Don Johnson (Miami Vice and Knives Out) as Arthur, are terribly underutilized in the movie and are significantly reduced in comparison to the original feature. Yes, they do have some minor subplots in The Next Chapter, but their somewhat inconsequential and could’ve been written better into the main story. In fact, it felt like some were just “shoehorned” into the movie….just for the sake of it, which is not good. It’s quite sad because Garcia, Nelson, and Johnson are still quite good in their acting talents and whenever their on-screen, but as for the characters of Mitchell, Bruce, and Arthur, they are sadly undercooked.
The rest of the cast, including actor Giancarlo Giannini (Casino Royale and Man on Fire) as the unnamed Florence Police Chief, actor Vincent Riotta (House of Gucci and Tar) as Italian Chef Gianni, and actor Hugh Quarshie (Highlander and Red Sparrow) as Ousmane, make up the minor supporting players in the movie. Sadly, much like the returning male supporting characters from the first film, these roles definitely have potential in them for some unique and humorous individuals that the four women encounters throughout their journey, but never really amount to much beyond minor distractions. Of course, the three actors are good in their respective roles, which makes their appearances worth it, but it’s just a shame that they don’t materialize into something more than just “cookie cutter” characters.
Looking for “one last hurrah” amongst their friendship before one of them gets hitched, Diane, Vivan, Sharon, and Carol journey to Italy on a bachelorette celebration in the movie Book Club: The Next Chapter. Director Bill Holderman’s latest film takes what was familiar and liked about the first Book Club feature and expands upon it by providing another round of middle aged women getting caught up wild shenanigans and learning more about themselves, of their love, and how close together each of them are. While the movie does carry a woefully thin script (character subplots and storytelling beats) and several pacing issues, the film does have some redeeming merits thanks to its presentation’s locales and locations, a breezy experience that’s both lighthearted and touching at the same time, and a very likeable cast. Personally, I thought this movie was somewhere between okay and good. Of course, I didn’t expect much from this sequel beyond the usual “fluff” of a rom com “everything works out in the end” feeling with these endeavors, so I wasn’t disappointed with it. Still, I felt that the feature’s story (and overall writing) could’ve been better utilized. The cast was good though and was probably the best thing about the movie (something similar to the first film). Although, I probably would say that the first Book Club feature was better and the more well-rounded of the two (story and character speaking). Thus, it’s a give and take, which is probably why I would give the movie a favorable “rent it” for anyone who enjoyed the original Book Club picture and wanted to see what became of these characters in another installment. In the end, Book Club: The Next Chapter plays it safe by not break any new ground or take its characters in a new direction, but it certainly does reinforce its ideals, humor, and sentimentality within these female protagonists in a way that is like eating a good “comfortable food” cinematic palette of formulaic reassurance of love and friendship.
3.2 Out of 5 (Rent It)
Released On: May 12th, 2023
Reviewed On: September 29th, 2023
Book Club: The Next Chapter is 107 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some strong language and suggestive material