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Review: If you could take a movie to the beach, ‘Book Club: The Next Chapter’ might be it

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. Season 3 of “Succession” went to Tuscany for a wedding, “The White Lotus’” second season 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 its 2018 predecessor. 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 bond, a lively balance of pleasure-seeking, hapless adventure and a healthy dose of tough love.

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

The sequel stumbles a bit at the outset with a 2020-set preamble featuring tired pandemic material about Zoom happy hours as the book club goes virtual; 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. The ladies shake loose their uptight Brentwood sensibilities for the Italian way of life, follow the signs like Coelho’s protagonist and a spontaneous drink with a handsome stranger, Ousmane (Hugh Quarshie), leads to a serendipitous dinner party and a visitor from the past.

Shot on location in Italy, the film offers some travelogue appeal, though it retains the aesthetic of a carefully lit studio backlot. The characters are also essentially riffs on these legendary performers’ 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 — 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 is 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 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, 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.

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. Most importantly, it’s about 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.

Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘Book Club: The Next Chapter’

Rated: PG-13, for some strong language and suggestive material

Running time: 1 hours, 47 minutes

Playing: Starts May 12 in general release

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