Diane Keaton Chases Forgotten Dreams in Third Act Comedy ‘POMS’

The best thing about third act comedy “POMS” is how its good-hearted sincerity raises it above the potential pitfalls of cornball predictability. Instead, it’s a sweet comedy with a bite that could be almost inspirational. And it boasts a talented ensemble of actors in their sixties and beyond, making their age relevant to audiences of all generations.

Third Act, a title given to the ambitions of aging individuals to represent the last act of their lives, summarizes the gist of “POMS.” Diane Keaton plays Martha, a New Yorker dying of cancer, who sells all she has and inexplicably moves to a sanitized retirement community in Georgia. At the Sun Springs Retirement Community everyone has to be socially active and join at least one club. Her future plans are to simply die and not have to tell anyone about it.

But she has a sex-starved neighbor who has other thoughts. Sheryl (Jacki Weaver) runs an all night poker game. “My talents are poker and poking,” she explains. When Sheryl learns that Martha was once a high school varsity cheerleader but had to drop out to care for her dying mother, Sheryl suggests they start a cheerleading club, but here is opposition from the community leaders. Celia Weston plays Vicki, the primary southern snob. Keaton’s club doesn’t have enough members is her complaint. Auditions are held, and the ensemble assembles.

A strong ensemble it is. Besides Martha and Sheryl, there is Alice (Rhea Perlman), who maybe or maybe not murdered her husband so she could join the club. Pam Grier, an icon of seventies cool, plays Olive. And there is Phyllis Somerville as Helen, Patricia French as Phyllis, Carol Sutton as Ruby, and Ginny MacColl as Evelyn. Each has their own strengths and their own style, ranging from ballet to hoochie bar grind.

There are bumps and grinds along the way. Denied rehearsal time at Sun Springs, Sheryl sets them up at the local high school. Sheryl works there occasionally as a substitute, where she mostly screens graphic STD educational films for classic literature. She fails to tell her comrades that the practice space she has arranged is in the gym at the same time as a school pep assembly. They perform for the kids, and it is a disaster. A disaster that is videotaped and goes viral.

It’s all downhill from there until they decide to fight back. They register for a cheerleading competition, signing up for the 18+ category. They blackmail Chloe (the memorable Alisha Boe), one of the mean girl high school cheerleaders, to choreograph their routine. In the meantime, both Chloe, and Sheryl’s grandson Ben (Charlie Tahan), learn a greater respect for their elders. As Chloe puts it, “I never had a grandmother before. Now I have eight.”

The screenplay itself by Zara Hayes and Shane Atkinson does not shy away from silliness. Not a huge amount of effort seems to have gone into taking the story any deeper than it is now. What sells it is the fun that the exuberant cast shares as they recapture past dreams and present day hopes. There is a certain audience-friendly “rah rah” feel to the happenings. It never goes too deep nor does it get too silly.

Weaver as the rasty neighbor carries most of the humor and attitude that gives the energy and an irreverent contrariness to the movie. Diane Keaton’s Martha is the mature voice. It is her determination and will that push her friends to previously unimagined heights.

Is this the ultimate fate of the once insecure Annie Hall? Single, childless and facing a deadly cancer, does she learn to define her own self-worth? Does she embrace the advice of neighbor Sheryl when Martha confesses that she is dying: “You were dying yesterday. You will still be dying next week. In the meantime, you should be dancing your ass of.”

POMS” opens May 10 in theaters nationwide.