Since Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist came out in 1988, it’s obtained an almost apocryphal status that it’s bound to never outgrow. The book, which concerns an Andalusian shepherd on a journey to find out what his destiny is, has been acclaimed less as a gift of great literature than as a fount of self-help. Given that it’s an affirming and, especially, digestible tale of discovery and hope, it makes for an apt early reference point for Bill Holderman’s Book Club: The Next Chapter: Though its main characters don’t carry on an official reading series in this sequel, each points to Coelho’s book as something of a north star in their lives.
The film is cinema as affirmation, asking us to think of it as a ticket to a far-flung locale, where love might be birthed alongside conversations with good friends about innocuous barriers that we pretend are insurmountable. Leaning heavily on breezy dialogue and the promise of love and friendship, The Next Chapter certainly understands the comfortable pleasure of watching charismatic actors like Diane Keaton essentially play versions of themselves on screen, drinking prosecco and eating gelato on Italy’s cobblestone streets and in tucked-away villas. And it’s also cheekily aware of that comfort, as in a scene where Sharon (Candice Bergan) tells Diane (Keaton) that her outfit, which combines Keaton’s signature hat and blazer combo with a flowing wedding gown, makes her look “more like herself” than ever before.
The first Book Club played like one long montage sequence, an occasion for the characters played by Keaton, Bergen, Jane Fonda, and Mary Steenbergen to make risqué jokes as they read the Fifty Shades of Grey series. The sequel doesn’t want for cheesiness or sexual humor, but where the first film felt like a clip show, The Next Chapter delivers a more unified and satisfying narrative, centered around the women heading to Italy to celebrate Vivian’s (Fonda) impending marriage to Arthur (Don Johnson). Turns out, their plans to travel to the country were derailed some 40 years earlier, so this is nothing if not a story about second chances.
After a long cold open montage set during the first year or so of the pandemic that sees the four friends reading bestsellers that they feel are intended for a younger generation of women, such as Normal People, Carol broaches the idea of going to Rome. Once there, Vivian wrestles with her decision to marry and Diane with a lifetime of persnickety choices, while Sharon finds romance with a philosophy teacher, Ousmane (Hugh Quarshie), and Carol runs into and flirts with Gianni (Vincent Riotta), an old culinary school classmate. Between Rome, Venice, and Tuscany, the women get into some harmless trouble with the law and find themselves caught in the tamest imaginable game of cat-and-mouse with a police chief (Giancarlo Giannini).
The Next Chapter is devoid of serious conflict, yet it hits with unexpected feeling, thanks in large part to the ensemble’s gift for effortlessly elevating the small, ordinary occurrences of their everyday lives. (Indeed, the chemistry between the film’s four leads is so strong that it manages to breathe warmth and life into such shopworn conceits as a montage sequence that sees Vivian trying on one stunning wedding dress after another in a marbled atelier.
Which isn’t to say that The Next Chapter doesn’t offer fresh insights amid its cheesily self-aware banter. At one point, Carol casually admits to her fear over her husband’s (Craig T. Nelson) health, and Sharon makes a plea that the four reevaluate their lives as a series of beautiful choices. The film, then, understands that for these women, indulging the pleasure of travel for its own sake relaxes them to the point that they open up to each other about their desires, regrets, and understanding of mortality in ways that they don’t back home. For them, to travel isn’t just an attempt to realize a romantic fantasy, but a license to live anew.
Cast: Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Candice Bergen, Craig T. Nelson, Giancarlo Giannini, Hugh Quarshie, Adriano De Pasquale, Vincent Riotta, Grace Truly Director: Bill Holderman Screenwriter: Bill Holderman, Erin Simms Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 107 min Rating: 2023 Year: PG-13
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