No one reads books anymore. What Lina Roessler’s feature debut, Best Sellers, gambles on is the likelihood that people will want to watch a movie about how no one reads books anymore. Given that people hardly want to watch movies anymore, either, the whole enterprise feels like a self-deprecating punchline left hanging on the dual-casting of Aubrey Plaza and Michael Caine, playing, respectively, a publishing house scion and a misanthropic octogenarian author, famous in another era and a dinosaur in ours. What antics might this wacky mismatched duo cook up together in a road trip framework?
Most of Best Sellers’ problems have to do with structure instead of performance, so there’s not much that Plaza and Caine can do. They’re stymied by the writing and constricted by the direction. The movie’s setup is straightforward enough that there shouldn’t be any such limitations blocking its stars from sparking, but the volume of jokes to clichés disproportionately weighs in the latter’s favor: A dead wife, an outsized family legacy to live up to, a heart of gold buried beneath inveterate crabbiness, unseen talent that emerges through ennui and struggle—all punctuated by the occasional appearance of a shotgun. It’s screenwriting-by-numbers. The heavy lifting falls on Plaza and Caine by default.
They do what they can with Best Sellers’ basic plot. Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza), the daughter of a late publishing titan, is drowning as she tries to live up to her family name. She needs a hit to save her reputation—her dad’s reputation—but so far nothing’s on the docket with any promise, commercial or critical. Then, a stroke of good fortune: Harris Shaw (Caine), a lion who reached his zenith in the 1960s, owes Stanbridge a book per his old contract, and Lucy knocks down his door to collect. It’s a rough introduction. He nearly blows her head off. But she twists his arm enough that he begrudgingly hands her a manuscript he’s sat on for ages, and the two immediately start hawking Harris’ tome to a public that doesn’t care about the work as much as they love a good meme.
After Harris’ first outing goes disastrously wrong—he reads letters from Penthouse and assaults a mincing book critic (Cary Elwes) in retaliation for his aggressive snootiness—Lucy takes the tour underground, propping the author up in front of younger readers at crummier locales, where Harris develops a new PR routine: Barking “bullshite” instead of reading from his book and, when the spirits move him, he pisses all over said book. (For clarity, it’s the spirits you drink, not the spirits you pray to.) There’s something to the reception Harris receives for his urinary feats and curmudgeonly demeanor; people respond not because he’s a great writer but because he’s a great sideshow. Desperate, Lucy starts to sell T-shirts with his scowling face on them, because people love a T-shirt. The written word is dead, or if not, it’s soaked in pee.
But Best Sellers pivots away from that cultural critique. The expectation is that Lucy and Harris succeed, and of course they do. Even platonic rom-coms—and make no mistake, the film fits that mold well—demand happy endings. But after taking such a dim view of today’s U.S. book industry, from the inner workings of publishing houses to the way audiences receive and consume books, Best Sellers abandons contempt for a hug. Everyone likes a hug. An abrasive comedy starring the actress best known for and suited to playing abrasive characters could use a hug, too. There’s too much effort put into the hug when the movie’s knives need sharpening. Hearing Caine rattle off “bullshite” after “bullshite” to the delight of crowds of 20 and 30 somethings has its joys, but Harris carries so much loathing—for himself, mostly, but for cruel fate, and for the very business that gave him wealth and fame—that screenwriter Anthony Grieco’s lack of vision is frankly baffling. There’s more Harris could say to shock viewers into paying attention to him than just a two-syllable curse.
The most Caine is given to do comes in the second half, when the grouchy act dissolves and he’s tasked with playing an avuncular sage. Plaza, on the other hand, has a full plate from beginning to end, and while she’s certainly capable of playing—for want of a better word—a “normal” person, Best Sellers sands down her edges well past the point where her skill set grows dull. It’s not so much that she doesn’t work than that the film doesn’t understand what makes her shine—and it doesn’t help that Ellen Wong, playing Lucy’s assistant Rachel, actually feels like a better fit for the lead (even though she’s shunted to the side for most of the runtime). The consequence of Best Sellers’ fundamental misapprehension of its own talent is hollowness.
Maybe that’s appropriate for a film about the fraudulence of an entire artistic discipline and the corporate grind necessary to keep the discipline’s practitioners from starving to death. But Best Sellers comes so close to actually saying something that the decision to say nothing—the movie becoming the very thing that Harris himself would rail against—feels like a bug and not a feature.
Director: Lina Roessler
Writer: Anthony Grieco
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Michael Caine, Ellen Wong, Carey Elwes, Scott Speedman
Release Date: September 17, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.