Review: ‘Best Sellers’ (2021), starring Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza

January 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza in “Best Sellers” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Best Sellers” (2021)

Directed by Lina Roessler

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state and in various U.S. cities, the comedy/drama “Best Sellers” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After inheriting her father’s financially struggling book publishing company, a woman in her 30s convinces a reclusive, elderly author to come out of retirement to publish another book and go on a book tour with her.

Culture Audience: “Best Sellers” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of star Michael Caine and anyone who likes predictable dramedies set in the literary world.

Aubrey Plaza and Michael Caine in “Best Sellers” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

Just a like a hack novel with a stale formula, “Best Sellers” is an uninspired comedy/drama that limps along until the movie’s very predictable end. Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza play mismatched characters, but their pairing as actors is also a misfire. It’s another movie about two clashing personalities who are stuck working together, with the added discomfort of taking a road trip together. “Best Sellers” does absolutely nothing that’s creative or engaging in this cliché-ridden story, although die-hard fans of Caine and Plaza will probably like this film more than most people.

Directed by Lina Roessler and written by Anthony Grieco, “Best Sellers” further typecasts Caine and Plaza in the types of roles they’ve been doing in their most recent movies. Caine plays a cranky eccentric, while Plaza plays a pouty, sarcastic misfit. They also don’t appear to have any emotional investment in their characters. If they don’t seem to care, then why should audiences?

A movie about two different people who start off disliking each other can be fun to watch if there’s genuine chemistry between the cast members and witty dialogue. Unfortunately, “Best Sellers” is so lackluster and predictable, even the cast members seem bored with everything. The movie also tries to bridge a gap between the traditional world of print book publishing and the non-traditional world of social media publishing, but the scenarios are just too forced and phony.

In “Best Sellers,” Caine plays Harris Shaw, a curmudgeonly widower who lives as a recluse in Westchester, New York. (“Best Sellers” was actually filmed in the Canadian province of Quebec.) Harris is so “old school,” he still uses a typewriter. Harris’ claim to fame is his first novel, titled “Atomic Autumn,” which was a bestseller more than 50 years ago. Since then, he hasn’t written another book.

Harris has become such a recluse, some people wonder if he’s still dead or alive. When the phone rings in his home and someone asks for Harris, he answers the phone and barks: “He’s dead! Bugger off!” Harris’ wife Elizabeth has been dead for an untold number of years, but grief over her death is not the reason why Harris hasn’t written a second book. And it’s not because he has writer’s block.

Harris just seems to be afraid of not being able to surpass the success of his first book. It’s unknown what Harris has done to make a living in the years since “Atomic Autumn” was a hit. Whatever money he made from the book seems to be long gone, and he’s in dire financial straits, because Harris is seen burning a foreclosure notice with a cigarette lighter while he’s home alone in his misery.

Meanwhile, the New York City-based book company that published “Atomic Autumn” is also experiencing financial problems. Joseph “J.F.” Stanbridge (played by Luc Morissette) is the company’s founder, but he’s currently a widower in a nursing home. The responsibility of running Stanbridge Publishing has fallen to his only child, Lucy (played by Plaza), who is desperate for the company to get another best-selling author.

Things aren’t going so well for a Stanbridge-published young-adult fantasy book called “Dragons of Orion” that Lucy had high hopes would be a hit. The book is a flop that has gotten a negative review in The New York Times. And it’s getting a lot of criticism on social media.

As an example, Lucy looks apprehensively at an adolescent book reviewer who has a YouTube channel called Tracey’s Book Club, which has more than 4 million subscribers. The YouTuber (played by Charli Birdgenaw) snarks in a video: “‘Dragons of Orion’ is dumb. All caps DUMB. It’s trying to be ‘Harry Potter,’ but it’s not even a bad ‘Twilight.'”

The top-selling author at the moment is Drew Davis (played by Veronica Ferres), who is a writer that Stanbridge Publishing wouldn’t be able to afford. Lucy pouts as she tells her assistant Rachel Spence (played by Eileen Wong): “We need our own Drew Davis … We need relevant writers to make us relevant again.”

And so what does Lucy end up doing? She puts her time and resources into a has-been writer (Harris Shaw), whose only book was published more than 50 years ago. Why? Because she finds Harris’ old contract and discovers that he owes Stanbridge Publishing one more book. Lucy thinks that Harris still has enough name recognition that his second book could be a hit.

Rachel is highly skeptical of this idea. She warns Lucy that Harris has a reputation of being “a drunk and a madman” who “shot his assistant once” because Harris mistook this male assistant for a bear. Lucy and Rachel track down Harris at his current address. And since Harris doesn’t like to communicate with anyone and this is a very phony-looking movie, Lucy and Rachel don’t just show up at his house unannounced. Lucy and Rachel break into Harris’ house when they think no one is there.

Of couse, Harris is in the house during the break-in, and he pulls a gun on Lucy and Rachel. Lucy and Rachel explain the reason for this unnanounced visit. And it just so happens that Harris does have a novel that he’s been working on for years. There’s some hemming and hawing as Lucy tells Harris that it’s in his contract to hand over the novel to her company.

Harris doesn’t want to feel pressured into finishing the book, but since he and Lucy need the money, the manuscript is completed. A clause in Harris’ contract says that he has the choice of having the manuscript edited by whoever is in charge of the company, or he has to agree to promote the book on a book tour. Harris lets it be known how he feels about his work being edited when he snaps at Lucy: “I’ll be damned if I let the incompetent hands of nepotism molest my words, Silver Spoon!”

And you know what that means: Harris and Lucy go on the road together and get on each other’s nerves. “Best Sellers” consists mostly of this tedious road trip, where Lucy tries to market Harris on social media, but he resists. Many of the tour stops draw an embarassingly low turnout for Harris. Lucy and Harris also find out that people who go to Harris’ book readings/signings show up out of mild curiosity, but most of them don’t buy his new book.

The name of Harris’ second book is “The Future Is X-Rated.” That title alone could’ve been mined for numerous hilarious scenes if the filmmakers of “Best Sellers” were more creative with the contents of the book. Instead, people who watch “Best Sellers” will be hard-pressed to remember what Harris’ new book is supposed to be about after they finish watching the movie. In other words, “Best Sellers” fails to convince viewers that Harris is a talented author.

Instead, “Best Sellers” stoops to littering the movie with cheap gimmicks, such as Harris having temper tantrums, instigating dumb arguments, and getting violent. On separate occasions, Harris urinates on copies of his new book in front of an audience, and then he commits a despicable act of arson that won’t be described here. “Best Sellers” has an entirely lazy way of letting Harris off of the hook for the crimes he commits during this moronic movie.

“Best Sellers” also has a stereotypical portrayal of a New York Times book critic. His name is Halpern Nolan (played by Cary Elwes), a pompous blowhard who seems like a Truman Capote wannabe. Predictably, Harris despises Halpern. And because Harris is a loose cannon, he gets in a fist fight with Halpern.

The clichés don’t end there. Lucy is supposed to be a “poor little rich girl” because not only could she lose her family fortune but she’s also emotionally damaged because of the suicide of her mother. It’s supposed to make Lucy more sympathetic to viewers, but Lucy still comes across as irritating by all her eye-rolling and whining. She’s not as problematic as Harris, but Lucy isn’t a smart as she thinks she is. Lucy doesn’t really know what she’s doing and seems very unqualified for her job.

Another cliché: Lucy has to contend with a shark-like publisher rival named Jack Sinclair (played by Scott Speedman), who might as well wear a T-shirt that says “Lucy Stanbridge’s Love Interest.” Lucy is annoyed by Jack, but she’s also attracted to him. Jack knows it too. And you know what that means in a hackneyed movie like “Best Sellers.”

In addition to being plagued by boring and witless scenarios, “Best Sellers” has very drab cinematography, where too many scenes are poorly lit. It might have seemed like an inspired idea to bring Caine and Plaza together in a movie, but their comedic styles and personas don’t mesh well at all. “Best Sellers” is a movie that could have worked well with an improved script and better casting decisions. As it stands, “Best Sellers” is a dud without much appeal and would’ve been better off permanently shelved.

Screen Media Films released “Best Sellers” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 17, 2021 The movie was released on DVD on November 2, 2021.

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