‘Best Sellers’ is a Plodding Drama About the Changing Culture of the Publishing Industry

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Lucy Stanbridge’s (Aubrey Plaza) publishing house is struggling after years of bland YA books. She is having to sink her trust fund into her father’s business (and his legacy), desperately seeking an answer to her money problems. The bad reviews won’t stop coming in, and everyone talented on her books are dead. When her assistant, Rachel (Ellen Wong), rummages through old contacts, they find that a shut away, but formally brilliant writer owes them a book. He hasn’t written a book in 40 years, not since his debut novel made the publishers.

Unfortunately, this writer is Harris Shaw (Michael Caine), a crotchety and drunk genius who needs money. He unearths a manuscript, and the pair go on a book tour, desperate to save her publishing house. He has a few requests before he obliges, including a lot of booze, and she isn’t allowed to edit his work. He doesn’t trust her, believes that she is nothing more than a lucky girl born with a silver spoon in her mouth.

Best Sellers smartly side-steps the odd couple road trip narrative, but sadly never replaces this worn-out plot point with something more interesting. Shaw, rude and abusive, struggles to book anywhere to promote his novel. Instead, the pair tour dive bars where Harris refuses to read from his novels. He instead creates a catchphrase (“Bullshite”), which he shouts at anyone near him and urinates on his novel. No press is bad press, and the writer soon becomes an internet star. Lucy quickly learns that becoming a hashtag and a meme doesn’t sell books.

Book Seller’s mild attempt to satirise internet culture and the changing way celebrities are created very rarely lands. It’s hard to believe that a smart woman in her 30s like Lucy doesn’t understand how modern marketing works. If this film had leant more into comedy in the earlier section, many of the satirical points would have landed better. Caine is clearly having fun, it would have been a delight to see him play up more to this curmudgeonly old writer who captures the hearts of college students across the country.

The first hour of Best Sellers is fun but entirely predictable, plodding through the book tour. Caine is having a blast swearing at hipsters and growling at anyone who comes near him. Aubrey Plaza is wasted as a smart but harried woman whose brilliance has always been overlooked by her father. There are just enough hints throughout the first two acts that there is more to be mined from this pairing, it just takes far too long to get there.

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The film finds it footings in the last 30 minutes, finally using its talented leads to their full potential. While the melodramatic ending takes away the film’s bite, it brings Best Sellers a much-needed focus. Anthony Grieco’s screenplay can’t stray from the predictable, despite the heartfelt finale.

Their hardworking efforts aren’t enough, alas, to rescue Anthony Grieco’s screenplay from feeling hopelessly schematic and predictable. If you don’t know from the beginning how the film’s emotional arc is going to play out, then you just haven’t seen enough mediocre movies.

Despite a decent supporting cast which includes Cary Elwes doing a fantastic Capote impersonation as a book reviewer, Scott Speedman as a slimeball trying to buy out the publishers and Ellen Wong as Lucy’s trusty sidekick, it’s all about the leading pairing. Caine is still a remarkable, yet greatly underrated character actor whilst Plaza is continuing her transformation into an indie leading lady. The pair work so well together it’s honestly gutting that the film isn’t better.

Best Sellers is an entirely forgettable and disjointed film that wastes a fantastic leading pairing. The beats of the narrative are played out, and there are just too many wasted opportunities. By skipping the odd couple on the road set up, Book Sellers is managed to be an even more predictable story of a miserable old writer and the uptight working girl.

Bets Sellers is out in select cinemas and on VOD now

by Amelia Harvey

Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy

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