Reel Dad: Book Club plays with the realities of aging

Let’s face it, getting older has its pluses and minuses.

On the good side, time provides a sense of perspective that enables us to balance what we worry about. And the years help us develop shock absorbers to handle whatever we may face.

And aging can, as well, produce funny movies.

The new comedy Book Club — now available on demand, on DVD, and streaming online — will not be remembered at Oscar time. It may not make it to the holidays. But its comic twist on the challenging of aging generates some hearty laughs, especially if you happen to see a few more wrinkles each time you look in the mirror.

The film, as the title suggests, is about four women who span the years together as members of an informal book club. Perhaps, at one time, they seriously discussed fine literature over coffee; at this point they prefer less-challenging reads and non-caffeinated beverages. Such as wine. No matter the material or the refreshment, they use their time together to express support, as real friends, for the ordeals each may face.

For Jane Fonda, who continues to amaze at age 80, business success has created a degree of emotional loneliness; for Candice Bergen, who manages to steal every scene she is in, professional accomplishments can’t mask personal disappointments. For Diane Keaton, who never seems to age, time has taken away a husband and planted her in conflict with her grown daughters over where she should live; for Mary Steenburgen, who should make more movies, imagining ways to recapture her husband’s attention dominates her days.

Anyone who has seen any number of comedies on screen will be able to see through the holes in the narrative to predict what happens. But that’s not the point. We don’t watch movies like Book Club to be surprised or challenged. We see these films because we adore the people in them, we are comforted by the situations they face, and we know that, by the final moments, the world will look a bit brighter because we spend a couple of hours enjoying a good time with old friends. Just like the ladies in the club.

For the actresses, the film is a valentine to the personalities they share and the performances they effortlessly convey. Fonda continues her Grace and Frankie momentum to deliver a caustic portrayal of a woman who can’t let down her emotional walls and Keaton remains as delightful and fresh as when we first saw her in Annie Hall. But the finds of the film, Bergen and Steenburgen, remind us how much richer the world can be when we get to see them on a screen. For Bergen, especially, playing a hardened woman who wants to soften certainly refreshes our view of a delightful comedienne just as she returns to television in the new episodes of Murphy Brown.

Yes, getting older has good and bad days. Any day that includes a chance to be with old friends is a delight. Especially when they are four of our favorite actresses.

Nutritional Value: Book Club

  • Content: Medium. Despite a few holes in the plot, the movie is a lot of fun thanks to the chemistry of its cast.
  • Entertainment: High. As comfortable as the story may be, the movie entertains because the stars have such a good time.
  • Message: Medium. Yes, there is a message here, that, how we age doesn’t have to define how we live.
  • Relevance: Medium. Anyone who loves Fonda, Keaton, Bergen and Steenburgen will have a wonderful time.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. For anyone looking for a light comedy to brighten the day, spend a couple of hours with these delightful ladies.

Book Club is rated PG-13 for “sex-related material throughout, and for language.” The film runs 1 hour, 44 minutes, and is available on demand, on DVD, and for streaming online. 3 1/2 Popcorn Buckets. 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: A lovely time with friends

Like a most enjoyable evening with old friends, the new film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel greets us with the familiar faces, comforts us with predictable conversation and moves us with a sincerity of spirit. While, as we experience with Book Club, we may feel we have experienced this before, we are easily entertained by the sincerity and humanity of the piece, no matter how easily we can guess what happens next.

From its opening moment, Marigold Hotel lets us know what kind of movie meal we will enjoy. The lovely Judi Dench strikes a chord from her first moments on screen as a British widow who is unable to make ends meet after her husband dies. She chooses, in a moment of surprising courage, to venture to India to get her life together at a vacation spot that promises to heal all wounds in a spiritual setting. There she is joined by a retired British couple — played by Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton — who look to the journey as a chance to escape their reality and each other — as well as a somber bachelor, portrayed by Tom Wilkinson, who looks to the future to remedy the sadness of the past. As icing on the cake, the marvelous Maggie Smith arrives as a pensioner who needs medical attention she can only afford to receive in India. When we first observe this group, as they travel, we know we are about to spend a delightful time with old movie friends.

As the visitors settle into their less-than-luxurious accommodations — despite the marketing promises — and adjust to the new routines, they begin to discover new dimensions of their hopes for the future. Like many who retire, most do not like the idea that their best years are in the past; they intend to be vital, contributing people. But realities have a strange way of deflating some dreams as many find that coping with the truth about today makes hoping for tomorrow somewhat challenging. The film touches us in its authentic candor about what we can hope to experience, and may have to settle for, as we grow older.

While the screenplay by Ol Parker, based on the novel by Deborah Maggoch, charters an expected journey of challenge, learning and discovery, the fresh direction by John Madden enables the material to rise above its primary ingredients. Madden, as he did with Shakespeare in Love and Mrs. Brown, brings a visual sensibility to the piece that sustains our interest during moments when the reflections become somewhat repetitious. His creation of a unique world in India invites us to leave behind our expectations for all movies to be logical. Something magical happens in the lives we experience and we each learn from the lessons they share.

The performances, of course, are sublime. Dench is touching as the widow who wants to believe in her husband’s legacy even as she questions some of his actions. Smith, as usual, captures the humorous nuance of every word and expression, and Wilkinson makes the brooding bachelor a believable character of depth and feeling. What a treat it is to experience veteran performers who relish every moment they can celebrate their craft. These are great actors.

As with the best of evenings with friends, we leave Marigold Hotel wishing the visit could continue. No matter how familiar it may all feel, what it makes us feel is always welcome.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is rated PG-13 for content and language. The film runs 124 minutes. Like Book Club, it is available on demand, on DVD, and streaming online.

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