Movie Review: Aubrey Plaza rides herd on Michael Caine in pursuit of “Best Sellers”

The pitch? Twinkly Michael Caine‘s a boozy crank of a writer, with sulky Aubrey Plaza the hapless, put-out “silver spoon” publisher trapped escorting the old drunk on a wintry book tour through, not bookstores, but accommodating bars.

Yes, “Best Sellers” could have been a hoot, leaving no drunk gag unrepeated and no Plaza dead-eyed double-take undelivered.

It isn’t. But that was never the goal of this uneven but sometimes warm, sometimes cute riff on publishing, writers, the book-flogging racket and an old man’s raging at the dying of the light. Neither great nor “awful” to any fan of reading, Johnny Walker Black Label, Caine or Plaza, think of “Best Sellers” as a light, sentimental page turner, more a low-hanging-fruit summer read than highbrow literary fiction.

Plaza is Lucy Stanbridge, who’s taken over her father’s tony New York imprint and is making rather a hash of things. Her YA authors are earning scathing reviews, and nothing else.

She and her aide Rachel (Ellen Wong, funny) brainstorm ideas to save the publishing house, and hit on the idea of reviving Lucy’s dad’s most important discovery. Sure, Harris Shaw hasn’t published anything since his breakthrough novel half a century before. And they’re not certain he’s still alive. But there’s this contract. And once upon a time he got an advance.

He’s “a drunk,” “a recluse” and “a madman” who “shot his last assistant.” He fled Britain as a tax evader and was “kicked out of Ireland for ‘poor behavior.’ IRELAND!”

“The world doesn’t need anything new from me,” he growls.

But he “owes me a book.” And after she’s confronted the souse with this news and gotten past the shotgun he points at the unwelcome outside world, after he’s chased her away and just as she’s about to finally sell-out to an old rival and ex-lover (Scott Speedman), Shaw hands over a manuscript.

All she’s got to do is raid her trust fund, publish “The Future is X-Rated,” publicize the hell out of it and save her company. All he’s got to do is do a “bloody tour” promoting it.

That tour begins with a disastrous but attention-grabbing meltdown in New York. As the cancellations pour in, a better idea supplants the first. They’ll tour bars instead, with the Great Writer doing his tipsy Dylan Thomas meets Norman Mailer shtick and Lucy selling books and pushing the title towards “critical mass,” that moment when a novel enters not just buzz, but the best seller lists.

This is the sunny, silly opening half of “Best Sellers,” Caine doing a foggy, self-destructive, anything-to-NOT-read-from-his-book performance art turn, Plaza’s Lucy driving him around in his ’80s vintage right-hand-drive Jaguar, trying to turn lemons into lemonade. She videos his nightly “BullSHYTE” tirades, the hip young barflies egging him on as his “readings” go viral.

No, the books still don’t sell. But he’s a Youtube star, for what that’s worth.

“I don’t GET it. Hipsters are supposed to love old things! Thrift stores and vinyl and communism.”

He just drinks his Johnny Walker, smokes his White Wolf cigars and hiccups through insults.

“You’re not very good at your job, are you ‘Silver Spoons?'”

The second half of “Best Sellers” slows down, almost to a halt, as assorted personal issues, “secrets” and the physical and psychological damage catches up with one and all.

But Cary Elwes makes the most of two scenes playing an effete New York Times book critic with a Capote complex. He’s the source of that first busted reading. Then we hear him on an NPR interview that manages to be even snootier than the real thing.

And there’s this lovely little touch, a grace note in actress turned director Lina Roessler’s somewhat ungainly debut feature film. Lucy hits on a clever way of getting “readings” of the new novel, its actual words, out before the public — just fans, reading a select passage here and there, video recorded and posted online.

It gets at the special relationship between writer and reader and at that increasingly rare corner of the public that loves words strung together in poetic, evocative sentences and thoughts. Lovely.

You’d have to go pretty far wrong to get me to pan anything pairing up Plaza with Caine, and “Best Sellers” tries its best, at times. But Caine does a grand grump, and Plaza reaches beyond her repertoire of eviscerating, man-eating side-eyes. They make this page-turner worth sticking with until the bittersweet end, and that’s enough.

Rating: unrated, smoking, profanity

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Michael Caine, Scott Speedman, Cary Elwes and Ellen Wong

Credits: Directed by Lina Roessler, scripted by Anthony Grieco. A Screen Media release.

Running time: 1:42

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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