‘Best Sellers’ Review: Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza Bicker Through a By-the-Book Heartwarmer

Lina Roessler's debut feature stops short of the sharper literary-world satire it could be, but its oddly matched stars make it a pleasant ride.

Best Sellers
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

For any older men feeling left behind by a world of youth, social media and anti-patriarchal sentiment, “Best Sellers” offers a comforting message: You may yet be a younger person’s savior, provided they come to save you first.

Harris Shaw, the ornery, outdated writer at the center of Lina Roessler’s gentle literary comedy, has been creatively blocked for 50 years since producing one vastly acclaimed novel. Stymied by his own one-time success, he needs to be dragged into an era that has largely left him behind to be freed as an artist. Michael Caine, on the other hand, has never needed any such encouragement. Still working inexhaustibly at the age of 88, he brings to “Best Sellers” a signature screen persona of shaggy, get-the-job-done defiance. Still, it’s the more withdrawn melancholy he locates in the character — or vice versa — that makes this one of his richer recent vehicles.

True to its message, “Best Sellers” tempers and renews Caine by pairing him with Aubrey Plaza as Shaw’s anxious, exasperated publisher, her fidgety millennial neurosis sparring pleasantly with his irascible pre-boomer resilience. Anthony Grieco’s script isn’t always up to the possibilities of this unlikely star chemistry. Its portrait of an easy-target industry goes soft just when it needs a little added spine, while the film’s abrupt tonal transitions from jaunty comedy to cross-generational weepie occasionally come at the expense of the characters’ own credibility. But it’s the overarching niceness of “Best Sellers” that sees it through, and should go over well with mature audiences when it opens Stateside on Sept. 17.

“Everyone else is dead or unaffordable,” New York publishing house head Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza) is told when she scans their thinning roster of authors for a company-saving hit, finding only the reclusive, long-dormant Shaw as a last-ditch option. Times have been tough at the business she inherited from her father, and her attempts to move into YA fiction have been cold-shouldered by critics and buyers alike — but a dusty contract pulled from the archives proves that Shaw, who made her father’s name with the bestselling “Atomic Autumn” in the 1970s, still owes them a follow-up.

Unsurprisingly, the crotchety octogenarian widower is none too welcoming when Lucy and her wary assistant Rachel (Ellen Wong) track him down and pay him a visit. If only to fob them off, he hauls a hefty, obscure manuscript from the bottom drawer and sends it their way, on the express condition that it’s published without any edits; Lucy is desperate enough to agree. The novel, “The Future Is X-Rated,” isn’t an instant hit, and neither is the planned publicity tour — repeatedly scuppered by Shaw’s whisky-fueled, antisocial antics, which include public urination and replacing book readings with a repetitive chant of his self-styled catchphrase “bullshite.” Gradually, however, this trolling shtick gains a viral following, establishing Shaw as a kind of latter-day Howard Beale of the literary world: “I knew he pissed on a book, but didn’t know he wrote one!” enthuses one newly converted fan.

At this point, “Best Sellers” hints at a more nervy, jagged satire about the conflicting objectives of art, commerce and celebrity: “How a book is released today has become just as important as its content,” Lucy says with only a faint flicker of irony. It falls a little short on tasty contextual detail — for one thing, we’re never really told what Shaw’s divisive new tome is about, making it something of a running MacGuffin — but there’s some truth in how it depicts the overlap between the old man’s cranky nihilism and the inhuman, sensation-chasing swirl of social media.

Ultimately, however, the film has cuddlier matters on its mind: After much mutually exasperated bickering, it takes but a single teary breakdown on Lucy’s part to soften Shaw’s prickly defenses and reveal the paternalistic teddy bear within. What “Best Sellers” loses in edge and interest, then, it gains in genial likability, as Caine’s and Plaza’s respective brands of comic outsider energy melt agreeably into each other, and an unabashedly sentimental sort of father-daughter dynamic ensues — directed by Roessler with a light, modest touch that resists the script’s broader impulses.

It’s not hard to see where any of this is going, not least since a wintry, elegiac ambience permeates proceedings — particularly via Claudine Sauvé’s crisp, softly frosted lensing — from the get-go. But there’s some poignant pleasure in the journey, even as its spikier queries give way to carpe diem messaging and at least one insertion too many of “The Great Gatsby’s” oft-quoted final passage. “Best Sellers” aims to provide succor to any viewers fearful that nobody cares for the written word anymore: Here, it’s bound paper that finally holds drifting generations together.

‘Best Sellers’ Review: Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza Bicker Through a By-the-Book Heartwarmer

Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Aug. 21, 2021. (Also in Berlin Film Festival.) Running time: 101 MIN.

  • Production: (Canada-U.K.) A Screen Media release of a Wishing Tree Prods., Item 7, Elevated Entertainment production. (World sales: Foresight Unlimited, Los Angeles.) Producers: Jonathan Vanger, Pierre Even, Cassian Elwes, Arielle Elwes, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Petr Jakl. Executive producers: Hussain Amarshi, Sashi Arnold, Paul-E. Audet, Martin J. Barab, Kevin Bernhardt, Mark Damon, Adam Goldworm, Jere Hausfater, Joe Sisto.
  • Crew: Director: Lina Roessler. Screenplay: Anthony Grieco. Camera: Claudine Sauvé. Editor: Arthur Tarnowski. Music: Paul Leonard Morgan.
  • With: Aubrey Plaza, Michael Caine, Ellen Wong, Scott Speedman, Cary Elwes, Veronica Ferres.