There are times when you see talented performers struggle with material that’s beneath their talent. Such is the case with Lina Roseller’s “Best Sellers,” a well-intentioned dramedy starring Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza, inspired casting that nearly saves this been-there-done-that exercise.
To be sure, with these two involved, there are moments, but the material doesn’t serve them well, lacking the necessary edge to make the barbs and sentiment stick, something the two veterans struggle mightily to provide.
Caine is Harris Shaw, a bitter author whose reputation was built on the success of one novel 40 years ago. Living and writing in obscurity, he’s content to commune with his cat and privately rage at the world, having become a recluse after losing his wife many years earlier.
However, his solitary existence is about to be disrupted by Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza), a desperate young woman who’s just inherited her father’s floundering publishing house. Needing a hit to stay afloat, she and her assistant, Rachel (Ellen Wong, providing solid support), dig into the company’s records. They find that Shaw was paid an advance on his next novel decades ago and never delivered a manuscript. Rachel insists he fulfill this contract, hoping he can catch literary lighting in a bottle once more and salvage the company.
The road trip they embark on to promote the novel is fun, the two bickering along the way, each giving as good as they get, the actors having a good time. Some pointed commentary emerges when they find that while no one is buying Shaw’s novel, they do respond to his contrary behavior at public readings. Uttering a distinctive expletive again and again, he becomes a social-media sensation.
The film wants Shaw to be seen as cut from the same cloth as Network’s Howard Beale, but the script by Anthony Grieco fails to develop this properly, one of many plot points that are introduced but not capitalized upon.
This is the sort of curmudgeonly role actors live for, and it’s to Caine’s credit he resists overplaying it. Yes, he yells and screams, and delivers an acerbic bon mot with just enough vicious spin to it, but none of it is ever to the point where the scenery is being rented or his co-stars are being blown off the screen. Forever the consummate pro, he remains a generous performer.
Plaza is up to the task of going toe-to-toe, having honed her own prickly persona over the years, effortlessly conveying that Lucy is strong enough to combat Shaw’s contrary behavior and endure the setbacks the duo face while on the road.
Unfortunately, the film stumbles badly in its third act, taking a maudlin turn that lacks conviction, trying to generate sentiment it fails to earn. Roseller botches the shift in tone, while a shameless plot twist comes off as exactly that.
At this point, the cast is in the service of a script driven by hackneyed narrative conventions and mawkish sentiment, elements that undercut the two principals’ efforts.
There’s an “almost-not-quite” feel that dogs the movie from beginning to end, and while Caine and Plaza toil mightily to make it all work, in the end, you wish their efforts were in service of a better movie.