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'Best Sellers' Review: A middle-of-the-road page turner at best

Aubrey Plaza and Michael Caine offer charm but not much substance in this story exploring legacies — some inherited and other desperately ignored.

Harris Shaw (Michael Caine) wonders about his next drink while Lucy Stanbridge (Aubrey Plaza) worries about the future of her publishing company in Lina Roessler's 'Best Sellers'.
(Image: © Screen Media)

Our Verdict

Director Lina Roessler delivers a sensitive and thoughtful debut but one too bereft of personality to make a significant impact.

For

  • * Plaza and Caine both have played versions of these characters, which gives them an immediate familiarity to audiences.

Against

  • * Roessler's direction leans too frequently towards pleasing the audience — and offering a pleasant experience in general — which reduces an intriguing story to a forgettable series of events.

It’s always a little bit of a bummer to see a personal dedication at the end of a movie that isn’t particularly great, because it indicates there’s a lot more personal truth beneath its easy-to-observe flaws than invented fiction. Best Sellers feels like the hundredth version of its story, a film about a young publisher with much to prove and the cantankerous author who stands between her and success, tapping into themes of parents and children, legacies inherited and forged, choices regretted and sadly not made. If director Lina Roessler’s debut feature is undertaken with the kind of sensitivity and tenderness that suggests a connection to the material that’s more than skin deep, she yet lacks the precision to extract greater substance from its assembly of familiar tropes.

Aubrey Plaza plays Lucy Stanbridge, the daughter of a famous publisher whose company has fallen into decline under her leadership. With creditors calling and an offer to sell from Jack (Scott Speedman), a moneyed former lover, Lucy considers divesting herself of the company and embracing the comfort of her trust fund. But when her assistant Rachel (Ellen Wong) discovers a handwritten contract that indicates legendary author Harris Shaw (Michael Caine) owes the company a second novel after publishing his debut decades earlier.

Although she discovers that Shaw does indeed have a follow-up ready to go, he has aged into a cranky old drunk, and refuses to cooperate with her efforts to promote the book. As the two of them embark on a tour across the country in his vintage Jaguar, she wonders with increasing desperation if it’s worth it to put up with his antics in order to protect her father’s legacy. Meanwhile, Shaw slowly begins to realize that Lucy’s intentions are good, even if they contradict every one of his own impulses. Soon, the two of them strike an uneasy accord on this last-ditch promotional road trip, leaning into his abrasive, profanity-laced performances to brand him as an iconoclast while driving sales of the book.

Roessler, a Canadian actor turned director, works from a script by Anthony Grieco to draw out parallel lines between the life of a young woman feverishly trying to protect her father’s legacy and that of an old man who’s unexpectedly indifferent to his own. Lucy is privileged but she’s also well-educated, thoughtful and hard-working, and if her initial efforts to draw Harris back into public view were motivated by financial necessity, she quickly discovers that driving her octogenarian counterpart across the country is much different than shepherding his work into the hands of readers. Conversely, Harris’ calcified shell has been hardened by years of solitude and loneliness after the death of his wife, and even if publication of the book provides him with a badly-needed infusion of cash, it won’t fill the holes that remain in his life.

A film like Marielle Heller’s extraordinary Can You Ever Forgive Me? offers a case study in how to tell a story like this — not quite the same, of course, and one inspired by actual events; but by comparison, the production card for Chicken Soup For the Soul Entertainment in front of Best Sellers tells you more than anything about what to expect, before it even starts. Lucy is plucky and Harris is acerbic, but the only thing they seem to end up sharing in common is screen time, which isn’t enough for him to start cooperating with her on the book tour, much less develop an almost paternalistic devotion to her as their mutual success finally begins to grow. We do eventually learn that his reluctance to participate in promotional activities is driven by something else than, well, being an old drunken jerk, but that revelation strains to connect the dots between two characters who by then have already created an intriguing connection without the additional, contrived drama.

If Plaza and Caine are both convincing as their characters, Roessler doesn’t especially seem to coach them towards anything in their performances that’s unique. If Wong hasn’t found enough roles that utilize the starry-eyed charm she displayed in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, she successfully gives Plaza’s Lucy a counterpart to deal with the ongoing ramifications and updates of her and Harris’ tour. Meanwhile, Scott Speedman never seems to decide if his character is sincere about helping Lucy protect her father’s company, or brokering a deal out of self-interest. And Cary Elwes makes an appearance as a Truman Capote-esque critic whose approval the movie suggests is essential to the book’s success, but who disappears after just one scene.

Even without knowing the deeper machinery of the publishing industry, Roessler seems to ignore what would seem to be obvious truths about promoting an iconic author’s book, or iconic authors themselves; there are too many brilliant, fickle, self-absorbed and self-destructive writers in the annals of literary history (even recently) for “getting randos to read chapters on camera” to be the inventive marketing tactic the film suggests that it is. In which case, Best Sellers is at best a forgettable but pleasantly diverting read, a book you buy on an impulse before a long flight but don’t mind if you leave it aboard because you figured out how it’s going to end. Roessler may indeed have a future as a filmmaker, and there certainly is plenty of room — and need — in Hollywood for another up and coming female director; but in the future, she would benefit from maximizing the personal connections she may her with her material in the story itself rather than just a dedication at the end.