At the Raindance film festival, London, UK, 27 October–6 November 2021
Formula written, if you’re feeling grouchy, inspired by Hollywood’s golden era, if you’re not, Best Sellers has two great performers at its centre – Michael Caine, still pumping out the charisma and deadly comic timing at 88, and Aubrey Plaza, who ups her ante to stay in the game with a wily old master and puts a soft edge on her usual smart sexy sarcasm.
Here’s the formula. He’s an aged writer who wrote a best seller 50 years ago but has done nothing since. She’s the poor little rich girl who’s inherited a publishing house and is now watching it collapse around her. He’s spending his days drinking and swearing; she’s flapping about rearranging the deck chairs but it looks like her ship is going down.
And then… Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza) discovers not only that Harris Shaw (Caine) is, to her surprise, still alive but that he also owes her a book. And, according to an age-old contract, is obliged to go out on the road to promote it. And, after a bit of plotty throat-clearing, off the two of them go, in his right-hand-drive Daimler, on one of those “in the movies” road trips from hell – him being impossible, frequently shouting “bullshite”, wrecking book readings, even pissing on his own book at one point, and she trying her utmost to win him round. It’s the unstoppable-force-meets-immovable-object plot of most screwball comedies, the sort of thing that Ernst Lubitsch, Robert Capra or Howard Hawks polished in films like The Shop around the Corner, It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby.
Lina Roessler directs the thrust and parry in that classic style and keeps the energy levels up, and writer Anthony Grieco stays true to the formula for the majority of the film, until he abandons it towards the end. At which point things get a little woolly and over-cluttered. But you’ll have had your fun by then, most likely, and there is plenty to be had in the verbal swordplay of Caine and Plaza, and in sitting back and watching to see if (and how) Grieco is going to get his ducks in a row so he can pull of the double salvation (his soul, her business) in the same single coup.
Shaw is a carefully crafted stereotype – old curmudgeons are often full of racist, homophobic and sexist bile, but Grieco keeps Shaw astutely out of “cancel” territory, booze, tobacco and bad language being the old guy’s vices, and Caine’s scrofulous appearance helps too.
If you’re being fancy, Shaw is the stand-in for all the Dead White Men of canonical literature, or the Pale, Stale and Male titans of corporate capitalism. Nor is he alone in his male awfulness. All the men in this film are dreadful – like the Truman Capote-alike vindictively effete New York Times book reviewer Halpern Nolan (Cary Elwes) or Scott Speedman as the reptilian would-be buyer of Lucy’s business, who’s also eyeing her for other purposes.
The women are pretty nice, and noticeably collaborative, with Plaza mostly parking the snark to play a vulnerable creature who’s got what it takes but just isn’t sure which way to point it. Ellen Wong plays Lucy’s smart, resourceful and slightly undervalued assistant – precisely the sort of role that once made Plaza’s name.
It’s does go all-in on begging for sympathy towards the end, as if unsure whether we like these people enough – we do! we do! – with disaster and dementia and death added to the emerging tragic backstories of both him and her. Lubitsch or Capra or Hawks would have taken a brushcutter to some of this undergrowth, but overall Best Sellers is what it is, a movie designed to entertain. In book terms, think of it as decent beach reading.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021