As her father’s publishing company faces ruin, Lucy Stainbridge (Aubrey Plaza) discovers that a reclusive award-winning author still owes the company a book. Pinning her hopes on the curmudgeonly Harris Shaw’s (Michael Caine) first work in decades, she has to fight the writer at every step of the book tour to find a way to market his work.
Best Sellers is really a film in two parts. The first half involves most of the comedic elements and suffers for it, as both Plaza and Caine hit their jokes too hard making the comedy feel painfully forced. A few sequences land, and there is some humour in Caine’s irate writer bent on self-destruction unwittingly tapping into the zeitgeist of social media, but on the whole it stumbles. Instead, as it shifts to the more dramatic elements, both actors and script find themselves on more settled ground. Best Sellers comes across as more naturalistic in these moments, portraying a far more genuine sentiment. It allows the characters to confront the fears of what is driving them, and to find acceptance.
The effect is an unevenness about the film, but that tonal shift really does save it. In retrospect you see the groundwork laid in the early scenes, and the whole script seems less clumsy than the initial set up, but it is still inelegant. Caine is certainly the highlight here, bringing a fragility and a self-destructiveness to the character even as he is raging against “the dying of the light.” Plaza is a bit of a surprise, playing better in the quiet moments than she does in the more manic comedic moments. For an actor that has been so potent in drawing comedy from sardonic dissatisfaction, it’s nice to see her stretch her range and excel at something different.
At its finish, Best Sellers does settle into quite a heartwarming film, but that initial setup is certainly heavy handed to the point of being cringeworthy. Hardly a page turner, but it ends up a sweet tale nevertheless.