'Book Club: The Next Chapter' a light, bubbly trip to Italy

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)

It seems like everyone’s going to Italy these days. Thanks to a strong dollar and pandemic-induced wanderlust, it’s not just influencers, old friends and exes filling up their Instagram feeds with gelato and pasta. “Succession” Season 3 took to a trip to Tuscany for a wedding, “The White Lotus” Season 2 checked in for a stay in Sicily, while Toni Collette landed in Rome to become the “Mafia Mamma.” And now the “Book Club” gals — Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, Diane Keaton and Candice Bergen — take off for a wine-soaked adventure off the page in the fluffy and fantastical “Book Club: The Next Chapter.”

Directed by Bill Holderman, written by Holderman and Erin Simms, this sequel is even more of a heightened fantasy than the 2018 film. It will require tossing aside every scrap of disbelief and grabbing onto a glass of Prosecco instead, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t also be a touching story about the importance of lifelong friendships. When Vivian (Fonda) grasps her girls in a group hug and declares them her “soul mates,” it’s hard not to be at least a little bit moved by their friendship, which is a lively balance of pleasure-seeking, hapless adventure and a healthy dose of just enough tough love.

From left, Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen star in "Book Club: The Next Chapter." The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

In the first film, the gals got their groove back thanks to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and in “The Next Chapter,” it’s about forging a new path forward with Paolo Coelho’s “The Alchemist,” the quartet looking for signs, which lead them to Italy under the auspices of a bachelorette party for Vivian, who is now engaged to Arthur (Don Johnson).

“The Next Chapter” has a bit of a stumble at the outset. The 2020-set preamble retreads some tired pandemic material about Zoom happy hours as the book club goes virtual, and the machinations to get them to Italy are so tortured that as an audience, we often feel ahead of the characters. It’s not until they arrive in Venice from Rome, rattled by the theft of their suitcases, that we fall into step with them, as they shake loose their uptight Brentwood sensibilities for the Italian way of life, following the signs like Coelho’s protagonist. A spontaneous drink with a handsome stranger, Ousmane (Hugh Quarshie), leads to a serendipitous dinner party and a visitor from the past.

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The film was shot on location in Italy, offering a bit of a travelogue appeal, though it retains the aesthetic of a carefully lit studio backlot. The characters are also essentially riffs on these legendary actresses’ personas — it’s not exactly transformative acting here.

But once again, Bergen proves to be the MVP as salty, sarcastic retired judge Sharon. She’s the very necessary hit of acid needed to make this confection palatable, the spritz of lemon on a plate of fritto misto, cutting through the fat. Going with the Italian wine theme, as these ladies like to drink a lot of it, Sharon is a dry, full-bodied Montepulciano (she may be sardonic but she is still sexy). Fonda’s Vivian a crisp, bubbly Prosecco, chef Carol (Steenburgen) a velvety Chianti, perfect for pairing with food, while Diane (Keaton) is a cool, sweet Pinot Grigio. To continue the food metaphors, the story itself is also so easily digestible that it calls to mind polenta: warm, comforting, not too challenging, a little cheesy.

This is a film that wants to have it all, to celebrate the women who take the nontraditional path but still end in a white wedding; to offer a portrait of feminine sexuality of a certain age, but remain couched in heterosexual monogamy. There are some inherent contradictions in what it wants to hold as true at the same time, but it’s also honest in that it offers a space for those truths to coexist. Holderman and Simms’ script navigates those moments capably enough.

From left, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Jane Fonda star in "Book Club: The Next Chapter." The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.Features via AP)

Ultimately, “Book Club: The Next Chapter” is about finding balance: between reading the signs and controlling your own narrative, between taking a leap of faith and putting in the hard work, and most importantly, putting your own desires first and having the bravery to take the reins, whether that means marriage or a rendezvous in a canal with a handsome professor of philosophy. Either or both can be the right choice. It may be treacly and unrealistic, but “Book Club: The Next Chapter” has heart and soul, and it’s as sweet and quaffable as an Aperol spritz on a hot day.

'BOOK CLUB: THE NEXT CHAPTER'2.5 stars (out of 4)MPA rating: PG-13 (for some strong language and suggestive material)Running time: 1:47