So it comes down to as simple a thing as four names: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen. The stronger a reaction you have to those names, the more likely you are to enjoy Book Club, a movie whose appeal lies, almost in its entirety, in watching those four actors getting a victory lap on account of being completely awesome. I'm happy to declare myself a admirer of all four of those women (and happier still that Book Club feels like it validates my lifelong Steenburgen fandom), and sure enough, I liked Book Club, despite the fact that it is objectively just not very well-written. I don't know that it really has to be: it's a delivery system, not a story, and in that light it is irreproachable.

The film has been directed by first-timer Bill Holderman and co-written by himself and Erin Simms, herself a first-timer; she also acts, and appeared 2015's A Walk in the Woods, the only other screenwriting credit Holderman has received. That's a whole lot of not-experience, and it surely explains why Book Club has such a recycled feeling to it. Everything about the script and the visual aesthetic feels like something that could have come out 20 years ago as easily as today (I don't even know that you'd need to swap out any of the nine main cast members), and there's a distinct "the least we could do" vibe that keeps poking up in some of the more laborious plot mechanisms. Certainly, there's a carefully micro-managed feeling to the four leads, each of whom represents a different kind of bougie white Angelino sixtysomething romantic life: Diane (Keaton) is recently widowed, luxury hotel-owner Vivian (Fonda) is phobic about commitment and has been single her whole life, federal judge Sharon (Bergen) hasn't gotten over her divorce, 18 years later, and restaurateur Carol (Steenburgen) is happily married, though less-happily undersexed. Ever since the  '70s, the four of them have gotten together for a monthly book club, and on this particular month, the sexually ravenous Vivian has decided to knock her buddies out of their comfort zone by forcing them to read E.L. James's 2011 erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey. This forces each of them into a reckoning, or not: Vivian and Diane's stories don't actually require the Fifty Shades thing at all, and Sharon's story only uses it at the edges, so honestly, it's only Carol who actually gets inspiration from the book. So it's that kind of screenwriting.

Thus begins four micro-romcoms. Diane, fending off her grown children's neurotic insistence that, at 66 years of age, she's obviously too old to live alone, falls backwards into dating a handsome, rather pushy airline pilot, Mitchell (Andy Garcia). Vivian receives an unwelcome blast from the past in the form of the One True Love she fled from 40 years prior, Arthur (Don Johnson, father of Fifty Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson; Book Club makes none of the available jokes about this presumable non-coincidence). Sharon, learning that her ex-husband (Ed Begley, Jr.) is engaged to a woman half their age (Mircea Monroe), decides to wade into the unknown, terrifying waters of Online Dating For Seniors; thereafter she has a wild sex romp with a nice man named George (Richard Dreyfuss). Carol just wants her impotent old man Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) to get good and horny again. The writing quality varies a surprising amount across each of these strands, enough to make me wonder if Holderman and Sims were trying to go for some kind of genre/tonal experiment that just didn't play: Vivian's story is far and away the most subdued and rich, Carol's is the wackiest (in some deeply stupid ways: as she's reading the book while watering a plant, we get a big, showy close-up of a water level meter springing from dry to wet, a juvenile gag that fits with nothing else in the film), Sharon's barely seems to involve conflict or even narrative content; at a certain point, she gets a big speech that lets her sum up the Things She's Learned, and I'm not sure when she managed to learn any of them.

So not a very smartly-written film, nor one with an overabundance of clever wit, and the whole thing keeps lurching into some amazingly heavy product placement: besides the insubstantial promotion of Fifty Shades of Grey, there's an enormous quantity of time spend lovingly gazing at the UI for the dating site Bumble. My favorite, by far, is when Holderman blocks a scene between Diane and her children to make sure that nobody gets in the way of a Buca di Beppo delivery van, with its highly visible toll-free phone number. Though the Buca di Beppo thing is odd; to look at the glamor shot of the restaurant name and the van, you'd assume that it has to be crazily overt product placement, but at the same time, the scene that takes place at the restaurant is positioned in the narrative so that the only reasonable way to interpret it is as a mocking joke at the expense of suburbanites: your adult children might act like they love you, but really all they'll do is take you to awful chain restaurants, because that's the only culture they have in the lifeless hellhole that is Scottsdale.

There are plenty of strikes against the movie, albeit most of them small, harmless strikes of the "this is so ridiculously anodyne and predictable" variety; what it has, however, is that cast. The four leading ladies are all superb in parts that challenge none of them (Keaton, in particular, could not be more fully in her comfort zone), with Bergen emerging as the best in show largely on account of her wonderful tetchiness about the whole thing. The supporting men are just as good, though only Nelson and Garcia have anything resembling a "part" rather than a simple "cameo" (the smallest of which, I am sorry to say, goes to Wallace Shawn, who I think is in a total of three camera set-ups across a none-too-long scene). And this ends up being sufficient to salvage the movie for two reasons: one is that the cast is made up entirely of old people who don't get nearly enough showcase roles, and it's wonderful to see them get such a lovely chance to shine - and while I'll stand behind my claim that nobody is being challenged, this doesn't keep the four leads from giving 100%. The other reason is that the story, once you get past the Fifty Shades gimmickry, and the romcom boilerplate, is really and truly about the joy of hanging out with friends and ignoring the nonsense going on in the background. Basically, it's a film about having familiar faces around to help you forget about the bullshit, and that maps so perfectly onto the viewing experience of watching a film with unsurpassed star power and very little in the way of a script or artistry, I'm almost tempted to say it happened that way on purpose.