Aubrey Plaza excels at being, for lack of a better term, weird. As an actress, she is top-tier at being deranged and sarcastic and disaffected and spontaneous, and sometimes all those things at once (see: The Little Hours). Everyone needs a break once in a while, and so I don’t begrudge her more subdued, toned-down performance in hybrid family/workplace comedy drama Best Sellers. Nor do I hold it against Michael Caine for leaning into his quirky older man persona a la Children of Men, because I’m sure he needs his own break from being the wise and weary man in what seems like every single Christopher Nolan movie. Plaza and Caine switch things up in Best Sellers, and have some lovely moments together. But the movie is so predictable that those performances might struggle to hold your interest, and despite the strength of this pairing, Best Sellers ends up blander than you would expect.
Best Sellers is mostly about the difficulties faced by the publishing industry, including what is perceived as decreased attention spans from young readers and the role social media plays in book marketing. But those observations feel overly broad, and lack the bite needed to go from “observations” to “insights.” As the film tells that A story, it maneuvers Plaza and Caine in its B story, and their friction is where the film’s charm lies. But Anthony Grieco’s script feels imbalanced in these pursuits, and so the emotional bond that is meant to be formed by these characters takes a bit too long to get going—and a bit too long to pay off.
Plaza stars as Lucy Stanbridge, who has just inherited her father’s renowned publishing house. On paper, Lucy is the perfect fit: she excelled at school, she did an array of internships, she’s trained to take over the family business her whole life. But the books she’s releasing aren’t selling, and her ex-boyfriend Jack (Scott Speedman) is sniffing around the company in order to buy it from under her.
With failure knocking, Lucy and assistant Rachel (Ellen Wong) struggle to figure out what to do differently. (Director Lina Roessler neatly conveys the desperation of their situation with a shot of the women climbing up a set of ever-winding stairs, throwing pages behind and around them as they vociferously read.) The only idea that excites Lucy is getting in contact with infamous novelist Harris Shaw (Caine), who wrote one book 50 years ago, Atomic Autumn, and then seemingly dropped off the planet. Atomic Autumn was the first book Lucy’s father edited, and it was a counterculture hit when it was released, and Shaw still has one book left on his contract. Does he have anything Lucy can release?
Well, maybe. Widower Shaw lives in a cluttered home with his cat, throws his phone out of the window after one too many telemarketer calls (“He’s dead. Bugger off!” he yells when someone asks him to talk), points a rifle at Lucy, and is totally disinterested in helping her restore her father’s company’s glory. But, like all of us, he needs the money. So he agrees to hand over his book The Future is X-Rated and engage in a book tour to promote it, but only if Lucy doesn’t edit even one word of what he wrote. And because Lucy knows that success will only come through “relevant writers that can make us relevant again,” she hustles to develop a promotional strategy that will utilize Shaw’s crankiness.
A mug shot of him giving the middle finger, printed on T-shirts. Speaking engagements held at bars, rather than bookstores. Social media hashtags of Shaw’s grumpier phrases, in particular “You’re all bullshite.” All of it raises Shaw’s profile—but does it help him sell books? And the begrudging bond that Shaw and Lucy form—does it help them heal from their own familial pain?
We can pretty much all anticipate the answers to those questions. But Plaza and Caine are nicely punchy together with Plaza as the straight woman to Caine’s uncontrollable kook, and that dynamic ends up with a fair amount of emotional impact. Roessler puts together a few satisfying montages to show the progression of their relationship, and some of Grieco’s lines are legitimately hilarious (“You’re not exactly Susan fucking Sontag” is a great insult from Shaw to Lucy). What’s harder to accept, though, is that the film’s major beats rely on a book gaining such national significance that people start getting “Bullshite” tattoos and spray painting the term everywhere and using it as a late-night-show punchline. Has any book about the failures of modern American living put out in the last, say, decade resonated so much? I keep telling people to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future and no one listens to me!
Nevertheless, putting aside all of the narrative’s predictable elements and unbelievable elements, and a twist toward the end that feels like Grieco not trusting the audience enough to discern who the film’s flawed characters are, and the slightly corny nature of the whole Lucy and Shaw relationship, Best Sellers has a few scenes in its concluding act that brought me to tears. That is a credit to Plaza and Caine, who elevate Best Sellers and bring some heartfelt effort to the cliches they’re given. In those final moments, the film does have something relatable and universal to say about loss, holding on, and letting go, and the poignancy and honesty Best Sellers displays in its third act is more effective than practically anything that comes before it.
Best Sellers is available via on demand as of Sept. 17, 2021.
Header Image Source: Vertical Entertainment