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'Book Club' aims for wit, wilts instead 

It's fifty shades of saccharine.

click to enlarge 'FEAR OF FLYING' TO 'FIFTY SHADES': Even Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen couldn't save "Book Club."
  • 'FEAR OF FLYING' TO 'FIFTY SHADES': Even Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen couldn't save "Book Club."

In her book "I Feel Bad About My Neck," Nora Ephron brought her inescapably smart and punchy eye to old age. "Why do people write books that say it's better to be older than to be younger? It's not better," she wrote. Then, she proved it, listing the many ways aging is dysphoric: no understanding of the zeitgeist, inability to chop an onion, bikinis are unwearable (if you're 26, she implores you to wear a bikini constantly until the age of 34).

Ephron was gifted, funny and wondrously clear writing about old age. Not everybody is. I went to see Bill Holderman's "Book Club" — an attempt at Ephronesque old-age clarity — on a dreary day, hoping to be cheered up in the delightful way the film promises. I left lower than ever. "Book Club" is, completely by accident, the secret psychological horror movie of the spring.

Here are the basics: A group of women living in Santa Monica have been in a book club for decades. They started with "Fear of Flying," the 1973 Erica Jong novel that set fire to the world with its descriptions of sexuality. Now the women are jumping into the brash adventures in whips and bondage we know as "Fifty Shades of Grey." Their lives are at a crossroads as they experience the complications of middle/old age (not quite retirement-home old, but "talking with your two daughters in Arizona about living in their basement" old).

Sounds fun. Easygoing! Light! But, it wasn't. Because as "Book Club" flailed around trying to make a joke of life's saddest themes — death, loneliness, love — they all became heavier. Ever heard an old person try to make a joke and then cough during the punchline? That's what "Book Club" was like.

Diane Keaton is fine as Diane (the woman considering the move to Arizona with her daughters). Andy Garcia, as her lover and a pilot, is gruff and leans in too much — both into the role and into Keaton: He's constantly crowding Keaton's space, pushing his slightly bearded face near hers, to make up for a lack of chemistry. Mary Steenburgen (one of Arkansas's own) as Carol is the accidental soul of the movie. Her given slice of the plot and her performance are a pinch better than the other actors'. But, by the end, the denouement to Steenburgen's storyline is so ridiculous and awful it seemed worthy of a sketch spot on "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!"

Vivian (Jane Fonda) and Sharon (Candice Bergen) are powerful women looking for love, and they're also ... fine.

But when the movie's jokes are about something so weighty — hitting the age of 70 in the work-centric United States, especially as a woman — the jokes need to be great. And we deserve great! This demographic does not get many movies made about it, and when one's produced, it should be a stunner. Fine won't do.

In the 1990s, the culture slogged through rip-off Ephron rom-coms. Since the mid-2000s, we've waded through an ill-defined genre of foolish attempts to capture Ephron's voice as she got older and took on the golden years of life.

What to name this genre? It concerns older folks — usually women, but sometimes men (think of a bad Robert De Niro film) — but not old folks. For some reason, the chief joke is that old people also enjoy sex; "Book Club" has enough dick jokes to rival "Superbad."

And the genre, whatever it is, has a single theme: death.

"Book Club," like its wittier companions in the literary world, could have taken the nearness of death — and all those potentially riveting aspects of old age — and stared them in the face until laughter rose to the surface. Instead, it takes the gas can and douses them in glugging gallons of schmaltz. If "black humor" is, as Andre Breton put it, "the mortal enemy of sentimentality," then "Book Club" is its antithesis. It's like watching someone try to laugh through the pain instead of go to the doctor.

In case you think I didn't like the movie because I'm young and didn't get it, here's the two-word review of someone I talked to who fits the exact demographic for Book Club: "It sucked."

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