Best Sellers

Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza in bed

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” (yes, with an “e”), 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.

Harris Shaw at the typewriter
Grouch at work!



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









Happiest Season

The family (plus guest) line up for a Christmas photo

Gooey, sentimental Richard Curtis movies are the template for this wannabe starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as Abby and Harper, a romantically linked couple going back to Harper’s parents’ for Christmas.

Being a mainstream movie about homosexual love – Lesbians, Actually – these young women are not in-your-face dyke-on-a-bike Sapphics but nice young women who just want to be accepted for what they are. Neither is heroic – Abby’s parents are dead and so she never had to come out to them; Harper has never told her parents.

And that’s the hook on which this film hangs. Is Harper going to fess up and simultaneously re-apprise them of the identity of her “friend” Abby? Or are the parents going to find out anyway, in some French farce, whoops-there-go-my-panties kind of way, or otherwise?

There’s a lot of good stuff in this film – Stewart and Davis can do no wrong, nor Alison Brie, who plays Davis’s ice-bitch sister. Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen are reliably cosy as the parents obsessed with projecting the image of the perfect family against which the great unfolding is going to happen. On top of that Garber’s Ted is a local politico, so squeeze that fact for all the ironic juice it’ll yield when it comes to putting on a false front.

The screenplay is by Clea DuVall and Mary Holland, both of them better known for acting than writing. It’s competent enough, hits the beats, and knows how these things are structured, but it’s a timid beast so wary of giving offence that it ends up draining any dreg of personality out of Abby and Harper. Stewart (the toughie) and Davis (the sweetie) struggle to put flavour back in with biggish acting but they know there’s only so much they can do before things start to look ridiculous.

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis
Out (or not) on the town: Abby and Harper


Holland also has an acting role, and Richard Curtis fans will be quietly mouthing the name of the late lamented Emma Chambers as Harper’s sister Jane (Holland) goes through a familiar set of giddy, dizzy, over-sharing, standing-on-one-foot ploys. She is, it must be said, very good at it, and provides the film – a comedy? – with some much appreciated laughs. Dan Levy’s doing something similar, and extremely well, as Abby’s gay best friend, who offers camp advice and an eye roll whenever the orthodox queer-eye-for-the-straight-audience viewpoint is needed.

Does Aubrey Plaza need to be in this film? Not really. And she’s got to be there as some sort of favour to someone involved, a bit more power to add to the left-field marquee. She plays Harper’s one-time hometown lover and has a few scenes with Stewart, all of which give off the vibe of a couple who don’t get on that well. Which is a bit of a problem because we’re meant to be half forming the idea that there is some romantic frisson between the two, aren’t we? (YouTube promo clips and interviews don’t back up this “don’t get on” theory, I must say, but something isn’t quite right – maybe they were just in a rush).

The imdb’s trivia page tells us that it’s based on DuVall’s experience, so I had a quick look at her wikipedia page. And there, in her entry under Personal Life are only four words: “DuVall is a lesbian.” Which seems like a rather thin way of describing someone.

And that’s the problem with Happiest Season. A lack of detail. Sill, there’s romance (a bit), laughs (a few) and drama (ish).

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

Black Bear

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott

 

Aubrey Plaza fans, here’s your film. In Black Bear she plays one, two, three or even four roles, depending on how you’re counting, as an actor/director trying to hash out a screenplay out in a cabin in the woods.

From the first instant that Allison (Plaza) arrives at this B&B “for creatives”, as owners Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott) put it, it’s obvious there’s going to be trouble. She, a self-declared “difficult” actress who went into directing because no on would employ her any more, immediately starts that bantering, joshing to and fro with host Gabe which indicates that she fancies him. As they walk up from the main gate, he responds similarly, even though he has a pregnant partner (Gadon) up at the house, who instantly sniffs which way the wind is blowing when she gets to meet Allison.

At dinner that night drink is taken, and the obvious differences between Gabe (a conservative) and Blair (a liberal) get a thorough airing. Relations deteriorate and Allison finds herself in a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? whirl of shouting and acrimony. If Gabe is going to cheat on the pregnant Blair then this might be his moment. Allison is looking wanton in an old fashioned way and earlier that day she’d made sure Gabe saw her heading for the lake in her red swimsuit cut very high on the thigh so… you know…

A rapid change of gears. The same three characters – Gabe, Blair and Allison. The same location – the cabin out in the woods. Except now the three of them are in the middle of a film shoot. Now it’s Gabe (Abbott) and Allison (Plaza) who are the item and Blair (Gadon) isn’t pregnant. She’s a support actress in a film being directed by Gabe. Allison is his star, an incredibly difficult one, drunk, hysterical and needy. Gabe, meanwhile is conspiring with Blair to make Allison think he’s cheating on her, to provoke her into giving the performance of her career.

There’s no need for any more plot than that, except to say that this collision of one reality with another does not stop there; there’s yet another reality floating in distorted meta style above all of them.

 

Allison starts to lose it
Allison, pushed right to the edge

 

It sounds confusing on the page but it’s less so on the screen, though that doesn’t mean this isn’t an immensely tricksy drama (horror movie?). It’s improved a lot by writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine’s decision to make the second half of the movie also a dramatised look at the making of an indie movie – the First AD with volcanic diarrhoea, the cameraman with an eye for the leading lady (or has she got an eye for him?), the wardrobe guy valiantly being the cool professional, the continuity person too stoned to keep up, the lesbian sound person trying to hit on the latest ingenue to come her way. Levine’s restless camera catches them all as the chaos builds, Gabe struggles to keep a grip and his star goes into a spectacular meltdown on and off camera.

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona lurks conceptually in the background somewhere, as Plaza, Gadon and Abbott work their way through an actorly exercise in shifting characters and emotional registers. All are excellent – it’s Plaza’s film, no doubt, and Gadon only really has a chance to shine in the first half. It’s Abbott, who was so wan recently in Possessor, who is the real surprise, revealing himself to be an actor of more range, subtlety and skill than I’d seen before.

Is it a horror film though? Yes, I think it is, an arthouse horror at some level, with unrestrained ego rampant as the “black bear”. Another great movie to add to the list of ones set in a cabin in the woods – 2002’s Cabin Fever, 2009’s Antichrist and 2011’a Cabin in the Woods (of course) being three that spring to mind. But then there was the terrible Secret Window (Johnny Depp in a Stephen King story) so let’s not get carried away.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020