Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen in Book Club: The Next Chapter


An excuse, as if one were needed, to re-team Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen, Book Club: The Next Chapter, while being a fairly traditional followup, is a very strange movie. By which I mean it really isn't a movie, but rather an opportunity to merely spend a cozy period in the dark watching four Hollywood legends of a certain age hang out in Italy and engage in sightseeing, slapstick, fashion parades, and the guzzling of liquor by the quart.

Dutiful reviewer-son that I am, I took my mom to a Mother's-Day-weekend showing of writer/director Bill Holderman's comedic travelogue, and although Mom said she didn't hear it, I was initially off-put by the incessant conversation taking place between three separate pairs of patrons seated several rows behind us, none of whom were speaking in voces nearly sotto enough. (It was like being at a live performance of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 takedown, except no one was commenting on the plot.) After a while, though, the banter made sense. My guess is that because The Next Chapter is so lacking in obvious narrative beats, and the stakes for its characters are so astonishingly low, none of the chatterboxes in our auditorium felt like they were disrupting a film. They were simply catching up like Book Club's more expensively dressed and coiffed stars were, making random comments about their lives and laughing at shared private jokes. For 105 minutes, Keaton, Fonda, Bergen, and Steenburgen might as well have been sitting at the next table at a fancy restaurant, enjoying a lazy brunch (with a lot of mimosas) while equally talkative viewers did the same. All told, it was a rather charming way to experience this thing … mostly because our auditorium's constant stage whispers were, for me, more involving than anything that was – or wasn't – happening on-screen.

For the record, Mom had a blast, and Dad (who also claimed to like the film) managed to stay awake the whole time, which is as close to a standing ovation as you'll get from him these days. My feelings were more conflicted. In my review of Holderman's first Book Club, which debuted five years ago this week, I wrote of its stars, “There are precisely zero circumstances under which I, or really any longtime movie fan, wouldn't want to watch this phenomenal acting quartet together.” With The Next Chapter, I think I may have found a circumstance.

Diane Keaton and Andy Garcia in Book Club: The Next Chapter

It all begins promisingly, with re-introductions to Fonda's hotel magnate Vivian, Bergen's now-retired federal judge Sharon, Steenburgen's newly unemployed restaurateur Carol, and Keaton's independently wealthy widow, a woman whose signature vocal rhythms, giggle, and wardrobe mean that her character could only be named Diane. In a sweet prelude set during the first year of the pandemic – a montage representing the last time anything we witness will suggest life as we know it – we see these decades-long besties continuing their monthly book club via Zoom, trading thoughts on Sally Rooney's Normal People and Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, the latter the inspiration for The Next Chapter's obligatory Life Lessons. Soon enough, our former 60-somethings are allowed to reconvene in person as 70-somethings. Hugs are exchanged, drinks are poured, saucy bon mots are dropped, and an announcement is made: The terminally, blissfully unwed Vivian has finally agreed to marry the beau of her youth (Don Johnson's Arthur) with whom she reconnected in 2018. Who's up for a bachelorette party, and long-delayed group vacation, in Italy – no reading involved beyond the reading of wine lists?

Aside from its cast, the inevitable sight of Keaton falling into a pool, and the glorious image of Steenburgen tap dancing, I'll admit that I didn't remember much about the first Book Club before catching its sequel. So it was a shock to return to my original review and be reminded that the four stars really only had about four scenes together, most of their screen time spent apart on romantic subplots involving Johnson, Andy Garcia, Craig T. Nelson, and Richard Dreyfuss (only the latter of whom doesn't return here). Because those detours were so largely winning, you didn't really notice the leads' lack of face-to-face byplay. But given the sparsity of sequences that don't find our iconic seniors sharing the frame, The Next Chapter more than makes up for lost opportunities; Keaton, Fonda, Bergen, and Steenburgen may as well be shackled together like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones. Watch this estimable quartet saunter the streets of Rome! Watch them visit a museum and make inappropriate comments about the nude statues! Watch them cruise the canals of Vienna! Watch them try on designer gowns for Vivian's nuptials! Watch them drink, and drink, and drink! (Is it possible to suffer from secondhand liver failure?)

What you won't catch them doing, however, is taking part in a cohesive storyline with legitimate investment or narrative interest. True, all four principals are granted their own little mini-dramas: Vivian worries about losing her independence; Sharon worries about aging into obsolescence; Carol worries about her husband's health following his recent heart attack; Diane worries about traveling with her late husband's ashes in tow. (It turns out that it''s illegal to secretly haul human remains to another country. Who says Hollywood comedies aren't educational?) Yet all of these subplots are treated with a blitheness that veers dangerously close to irrelevance – Keaton unleashes a wholly inappropriate cackle at the stupidity of Diane's ash-scattering mission – and all conceivable threats to absolute happiness are handled with insultingly quick fixes. Although there's a script credited to Holderman and Erin Simms, I'm not convinced that anyone necessarily followed it, considering how many potential crises are resolved in the manner of a three-minute improv sketch.

Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen in Book Club: The Next Chapter

Meanwhile, some of the routines and punchlines here just made me want to hide my face in shame. Steenburgen, having reunited with Carol's former lover from culinary school (Vincent Riotta), is stuck with a humiliating working-out-the-tension gag that's a lame attempt at her similar bit with Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock. Keaton dons a purportedly gorgeous, hideous-even-for-her black-and-white outfit that's like a parody of Diane Keaton evening wear: poofy hoop skirt, jacket to the ankles, fur at the wrists, polka dots, sunglasses, hat. And while the first Book Club, too, overdid it with the ludicrously unfunny, Sex & the City-esque sexual innuendos, someone should have invented a new rating for the PG-13 shenanigans of The Next Chapter – a rating indicative of a relatively benign film that you don't, under any circumstances, want to watch with your mother. It was uncomfortable enough to hear Bergen, via iPhone, mutter “Jesus f---ing Christ,” and in a church, of all places. But if I were forced to suffer through one more jokey reference to one of our leads' vaginas (“I think somebody's bouche is already quite amuse-d!”), I was going to pull out my car keys and stab myself in the eyes, just to momentarily take the pain away from my ears.

Still, Book Club: The New Chapter is at least an improvement on 2010's Sex & the City 2, if for no other reason than Candice Bergen emerging as a drier, saltier, more delicious Samantha than Kim Cattrall ever was. Happily, though, there are other reasons, too. Despite his screen time being more limited in this entry, Andy Garcia returns to suggest one of the best cinematic partners Keaton has ever had, matching her grin for grin and appearing to delight in her singular comic eccentricity. Thanks to cinematographer Andrew Dunn, the Italian cities and landscapes on display look ravishing. Hugh Quarshie is a high-order charmer in his wooing of Sharon, though he perhaps shouldn't be permitted to sing Italian renditions of Laura Branigan's “Gloria,” like, ever again. An initially grumpy cop who becomes an unexpected ally was amusing for his uncanny resemblance to Giancarlo Giannini … and then it turned out he was Giancarlo Giannini! (I was delighted and relieved to learn that the 80-year-old Italian legend, whom I wrongly presumed was dead, wasn't.)

Plus, of course, there's the movie's central quartet, and if the stars initially look a little uncomfortable during that opening Zoom meeting … . Well, who does look comfortable during a Zoom meeting? From then on, Keaton, Fonda, Bergen, and Steenburgen appear to be having the times of their lives on holiday together, and their collective enthusiasm and clear enjoyment of one another's company atones for a lot of The Next Chapter's tedium and tastelessness. You could argue that no one was asking for a sequel to Holderman's 2018 comedy and you wouldn't be wrong. Except that, apparently, you would, because without remembering the closer, here's how I ended my aforementioned critique of that five-year-old outing: “Book Club could be seen as an excellent plug for the Fifty Shades series. I prefer to think of it, fingers crossed, as an excellent pitch for sequels.” So be careful what you wish for. And, I suppose, be grateful for what you get.

Ben Affleck and Alice Braga in Hypnotic


At what point does the screwing over of movie characters turn into the screwing over of a movie's audience? It's a slippery slope, to be sure, and films as varied as The Sting, The Sixth Sense, Memento, and at least half of David Mamet's original works have delivered a great deal of fun in the “you think you know what's going on but you really don't” department. I'm betting that with his new thriller Hypnotic, writer/director Robert Rodriguez was having a helluva time, too, shaking up his script (co-written by Max Borenstein) like an Etch-a-Sketch every few scenes and completely flipping the narrative so that neither the film's protagonist nor those viewing his predicament are ever in complete control of their bearings. But too much cleverness can be a dangerous thing, and after maybe the third or fourth “Wha-a-a?!?” twist landed in this vaguely sci-fi effort, I wasn't really digging the frequent turnarounds. I was more accurately begging them to stop, because the movie seemed to hit a perfect peak of invention, and then insisted on continuing for another reversal, and then another, and then another. (There's even another “another” if you wait for the end credits to be half-over.) I appreciated Rodriguez's and Borenstein's ingenuity and evident enthusiasm. I just wish those attributes, here, didn't also prove so taxing.

With an unmasked Ben Affleck speaking in gravelly Batman tones as Texas-based detective Danny Rourke, Hypnotic actually boasts a pretty terrific premise long before the presentational nuttiness ensues. Traumatized by the disappearance of his young daughter – a girl whose accused kidnapper/murderer recalls nothing of the event – Rourke becomes increasingly convinced that her abduction was the doing of a presumed bank robber named Dellrayne. (Veteran moviegoers will no doubt agree, given that the man is played by peerless movie scoundrel William Fichtner, one of Affleck's co-stars in Armageddon.) Dellrayne, it appears, possesses a unique psychic gift: All he has to do is look someone in the eye and initiate a suggestion, and he can Jedi-mind-trick his way into having that person do his bidding. With crimes consequently being perpetrated by innocent victims who don't realize they're doing anything wrong, this is a first-rate setup for a cop thriller, and could easily have sustained this movie's gratifyingly brisk hour-and-a-half. Oh but there's more. So so so much more.

Considering that what happens even 20 minutes into the film really shouldn't be spoiled, it's probably best to see Rodriguez's latest with as little advance information as possible, even though I'm not certain that it needs to be seen at all. (Depending on your fondness for Alita: Battle Angel, however, it's definitely superior to anything Rodriguez has done since 2007's Grindhouse segment Planet Terror.) Because I'm paid to dispense info in these articles, I will say that the reliably laser-focused Alice Braga, as a questionable fortune teller who becomes Rourke's gateway into weirdness, is wonderfully commanding yet empathetic – less reminiscent of her famous actress aunt Sônia Braga than the Swedish powerhouse Lena Olin. And although the dialogue is typically clunky and exposition-heavy in the Rodriguez-flick manner, the many storytelling spins and unexpected shifts in locale are inventive and surprisingly fathomable … for a while. Exhaustion totally sets in, however, after several too many tumbles down the rabbit hole, and when Rourke's view of his surroundings folded into itself à la Christopher Nolan's Inception with more than half the movie to go, I should have taken it as a sign of Rodriguez wanting to do everything without, in the end, tonally accomplishing much of anything. Hypnotic is too ambitious to be discarded outright. It's also the rare 90-minute movie that would've been far more effective clocking in at 75.

Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton in BlackBerry


In writer/director Matt Johnson's bio-tragicomedy BlackBerry, the film's co-lead Glenn Howerton pulls off a cinematic feat I don't think I've experienced before: He creates a very specific type of money-hungry asshole who is a noxious douchebag in every single scene, yet at no point did I want to be rid of him.

Wholly unrecognizable with his largely shaved head and omnipresent grimace, Howerton plays Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie, who, in the film's telling, weaseled his way into serving as co-CEO of the tech outfit Research in Motion right when the company's BlackBerry was on its way to being the It Gadget of the mid-1990s. Balsillie, by all evidence, doesn't know shit about tech. He does, however, know how to read and intimidate a room, and the scenes of Howerton steamrolling over the iPhone precursor's inventors (principally Jay Baruchel's Mike Lazaridis and Johnson's Douglas Fregin), its potential investors (among them a phenomenal Saul Rubinek), and the general public are like watching a two-hour loop of Alec Baldwin's explosive Glengarry Glen Ross cameo, but with greater motivational variety. For Howerton, his 15-years-and-counting tenure on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has likely cemented the notion that you don't have to be likable to be effective, or even charming. And the actor is devastatingly effective and queasily charming as this hateful SOB, so assured of Balsillie's might-equals-right approach that we both thrill to the guy getting knocked down several pegs and cheer when, against all odds and logic, he's able to turn abject failure into a colossal win. Too bad that Succession is ending after two more episodes. Howerton's Balsillie, and Howerton himself, would've fit in beautifully.

Lifelong tech moron that I am, I was a tad confused by some of the story's diversions – I never quite understood how Cary Elwes' Palm Inc. CEO Carl Yankowski fit into the scheme of things – and was distracted by Johnson's overtly comedic, one-note take on Fregin. (With his schlubby demeanor and continual expression of open-mouthed confusion, it was like watching the BlackBerry innovator played by Judah Friedlander's head writer Frank on 30 Rock, with Douglas' bandanas replacing Frank's baseball caps.) Those mentions, however, effectively encompass my complaints, because BlackBerry is otherwise sensational – funny in the style of The Office, heartbreaking in the style of The Social Network, and exciting in the style of Ben Affleck's recent Air, with the caveat that, unlike the product in Johnson's movie, people are still buying the shoes.

Although the low-budget graininess and seemingly improvisational staging take some getting used to, Johnson's dynamic, fly-on-the-wall direction is only equaled by the biting dialogue in his and co-author Matthew Miller's supremely quotable script. (“Yeah, I'm a shark. You know who's afraid of sharks? Pirates.”) And as a fan of the actor since his superior turn as the nerdiest of studs on Judd Apatow's Freaks & Geeks followup Undeclared in the early aughts, it was a joy to see Baruchel finally land a signature role, his nervous wallflower energy and silver hair suggesting a Zuckerberg/Assange hybrid with the potential to be both and the bad (good?) luck to be neither. If it's not too late to catch Johnson's movie before it leaves the area, by all means do so. It's BlackBerry, and it's juicy as hell.

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