Director: Lina Roessler
Cast: Michael Caine, Aubrey Plaza, Scott Speedman, Ellen Wong, Cary Elwes, Luc Morissette, Veronica Ferres, Frank Schorpion, Florence Situ, Philip Le Maistre
Runtime: 1 hr 42 mins
Rating: NC16 (Some Coarse Language)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 30 December 2021
Synopsis: In a last ditch effort to save the boutique publishing house her father has left her, an ambitious young editor (Aubrey Plaza) goes on a book tour with the bitter, booze-addled author (Michael Caine) who put the publishing house on the map.
At first, ‘Best Sellers’ gives you the impression that you’re in for a sharp comedy drama about the unlikely bond that forms between a cantankerous novelist and his fretful book publisher. Said novelist is the ageing Harris Shaw, played by the great Michael Caine, who lives in a tumbledown house in upstate New York; and said publisher is the young Lucy Stanbridge, played by Aubrey Plaza, who inherited the independent publishing house from her father and is now its editorial director.
Having printed one too many terrible YA novels, Lucy finds her company in dire financial straits. With everyone else ‘dead or unaffordable’, Lucy has no choice but to turn to an old contract which stipulates that her publishing firm is still contractually entitled to ask for a new book from Shaw, and despite her loyal assistant’s (Ellen Wong) advice against doing so, decides to pay the reclusive author a visit at his last known address before he dropped off the face of the world.
Whereas more literary minded filmmakers might have let Shaw and Lucy tussle it out through the creative process, director Lina Roessler and her screenwriter Anthony Grieco decide to fall back on a road trip to have both of them spar with each other. So after chasing Lucy and her assistant off his property, Shaw suddenly turns up unannounced at her company with an unpublished manuscript in his hands, which Lucy promptly draws down on her trust fund in order to pay for the printing of the book entitled ‘The Future is X-rated’.
By this point at the end of the first act, you’d already have figured out that ‘Best Sellers’ neither intends itself to be or demands much of its viewer; instead, it is simply content to coast on the unlikely chemistry between Caine and Plaza, both of whom do their best within their thinly written roles. Caine has good fun with the curmudgeonly role, not least in turning ‘bullshite’ into his character’s catchphrase; on the other hand, Plaza holds her own as Caine’s foil, taking swipe at his cranky nihilism and then exploiting it for the perverseness of social media.
Driving her irascible charge from venue to venue for their publicity tour, there is a certain rhythm to the second act of Shaw and Lucy’s that keeps the film bouncing along nicely. It is also to Caine and Plaza’s credit that they manage to turn what began as an abrasive relationship into a unexpected kinship not unlike a father-daughter or grandfather-granddaughter relationship, and you’ll especially enjoy the surprisingly sweet moments that the duo share, including when Shaw accepts Lucy’s honest criticism about his work and gives her the license to propose edits.
Despite some contrivances in the last act concerning certain revelations from their respective pasts, Caine and Plaza wrangle the cloying material into something that comes close to being truly poignant. In particular, both actors bring genuine emotion to the bittersweet ending where their characters help each other to find closure and continuity. It is schmaltz to a large extent no doubt, but less cynical audiences will find themselves sufficiently moved by this story that builds into a lesson about overcoming one’s fears of letting go and starting over.
So like we said, those looking for a sharp comedy drama in ‘Best Sellers’ will quite likely be disappointed by its lack of ambition in this regard; notwithstanding that, it is still an often amusing and gradually affecting two-hander anchored by Caine and Plaza. Indeed, it is especially amazing how Caine, at the age of 88, still gives his all to avoid Shaw from turning into a cliché; and while that may not be enough to make this a bestselling hit, it certainly rewards those who sit through it with heart, humour and some real bite.
(Some unlikely chemistry between Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza makes this formulaic but entertaining comedy drama a worthwhile watch that is akin to a light, sentimental page-turner)
Review by Gabriel Chong