Best Sellers – movie review

Two newcomers, a rising star and a consummate veteran collaborate on Best Sellers. Anthony Grieco provides his first script for Lina Roessler to direct her debut feature. Both are actors who’ve now turned their hands to new fields. And despite some valiant efforts by all concerned, a lack of cohesion drags on this heartfelt film.

Lucy Stanbridge (Aubrey Plaza) has inherited a publishing house. But with sales flat and no hits on the horizon, she’s seriously considering a takeover offer from ex-boyfriend Jack Sinclair (Scott Speedman). But in desperation, Lucy and her assistant Rachel Spence (Ellen Wong) find a long-overlooked contract with Harris Shaw (Michael Caine). Shaw wrote a bestseller called Atomic Autumn back in the day, but then dropped off the radar. That book put the company on the publishing map. Lucy and Rachel discover that the company paid Shaw an advance back in the ’70s but he didn’t deliver. So now he owes them a book.

Only trouble is Shaw has become an alcoholic curmudgeon living a frugal life in upstate New York. Lucy and Rachel travel to his house and (gently) confront him with the contract. After some bluster, Shaw delivers a manuscript for a sci-fi book titled The Future is X-Rated. There’s a catch though. The contract stipulates that Shaw can refuse any edits to his work – but if he does, then he has to promote the book as the publisher directs. Not wanting to have his book to be edited, Shaw reluctantly agrees to promote it. But with Shaw’s star long faded and his behaviour erratic, it’ll take a superhuman effort by Lucy to keep the tour on the rails.

The idea of different generations finding common ground isn’t exactly new, and Best Sellers doesn’t deliver any new perspective on it. But the filmmakers wear their hearts on their sleeves. The problem isn’t in the message, it’s in the plot. Grieco and Roessler don’t really find a way for the main characters to connect meaningfully. Neither seemed to give any emotional quarter to the other, so they lacked any way to find common ground. When the shift in tone inevitably happened, I was left wondering why.

Roessler and Grieco cram a lot into the film. At heart, it’s a gentle conventional dramedy about understanding across generations. But it has some really interesting things to say about social media, literature and celebrity culture. In a 100-minute film though, all these ideas have to jostle for airtime within the larger narrative. This leads to the film meandering somewhat as it tries to hit all its beats.

Is it a rule now that all films about literature have to reference J. D. Salinger? Seems like it, as Shaw is plainly a cipher for the real-life writer. In fact, there’s not a million miles between this film and Philippe Falardeau’s My Salinger Year (or The High Note, for that matter). The key difference though is that in this film, the mythos of the great artist plays second fiddle to a more emotional story. And while that story doesn’t stretch any boundaries, it’s mostly effective – script problems aside – particularly in the final scenes.

The real pleasure in Best Sellers though is seeing the great Michael Caine in what is possibly his last film role. The actor is 88 years old now, but his craft hasn’t diminished, and his enjoyment of it shines through. Caine has revealed in interviews he’s having physical difficulties, which makes some scenes in the film all the more poignant. He dominates every scene he’s in, even if the script gives him a few dodgy lines. Aubrey Plaza’s (Happiest Season) Lucy naturally has to be more subdued, but she delivers another performance of intelligence and wit. Ellen Wong (GLOW) gets lumbered with the sidekick role of Rachel, but does a nice job of it. And in a couple of callbacks, former heartthrobs Scott Speedman and Carey Elwes turn up in small roles.

While Best Sellers manages to generate a likeable indie vibe, the plotting of the central relationship lets it down. Although I can’t say it’s particularly memorable, I’m still interested to see what Lina Roessler does next.

David Edwards

Other reviews you might enjoy: