Apparently everybody would just love to be berated and abused by a churlish old Englishman who constantly sports a sour expression. In the world of American cinema, all nasty, ornery gaffers should be indulged at every turn because their antics are supposed to be hilarious. As soon as they reveal a dark secret from their past, all of their cruelty is justified and their victims are expected to put up with their crap. We are even asked to believe that busybody millennials learn valuable lessons as a result of enduring senseless emotional abuse. It’s a tired, fairly disturbing trope and proves that some Americans have not moved past their infatuation with British Imperialism.
As this problematic trope remains frustratingly popular, it isn’t surprising that Cockney acting legend Michael Caine (it looks like rumours of his retirement have been greatly exaggerated) chose to jump on the bandwagon. Best Sellers (2021), his latest low-budget vehicle, is a weepie that gives him the opportunity to go full Maggie Smith. He takes on the role of Harris Shaw, a grumpy author who has suffered from writer’s block in the decades following the publishing of his widely heralded debut novel. His beloved wife passed away many years ago and he lives as a recluse in Westchester County. He is irritated when publishing magnate Lucy Stanbridge (Aubrey Plaza) visits him and reminds him of the fact that he signed a contract requiring him to write another novel. Stanbridge runs a publishing house that flourished under the leadership of her father, but the business has struggled in the 21st century and Stanbridge sees Shaw’s latest novel as a potential bestseller. He hands her an unedited manuscript that he has been working on for many years and she chooses to publish it in a last ditch effort to publicly save face. Initially, the novel fails to achieve success. All of this changes when Shaw’s folksy persona turns him into a social media sensation and his personal ethos sets off a cultural revolution.
The narrative is clearly set up to create contrived friction between a feisty young whippersnapper and an old codger, so the screenwriters pay their due diligence to the formula and force Caine and Plaza to shriek at one another for 45 minutes. These scenes are frustrating to watch, as the conflict is so unbalanced. Shaw is extremely rude to a young woman who is just trying to do her job and she never does anything that would give us reason to believe that his behaviour was acceptable. Rather than watching two people having a legitimate argument over an issue that they view from different perspectives, we watch an old man harassing his employer for several weeks. The banter is never particularly humorous and whilst Caine and Plaza are suitably mismatched, sparks never fly between the two of them.
The script also feels hopelessly dated in the view that it takes of the modern publishing landscape. The film seems to exist in a world in which no public figure has ever staged elaborate publicity stunts in an effort to sell their wares and earn their fifteen minutes of fame. Shaw is treated like some sort of breath of fresh air because he swears a lot and sets books on fire. We’re meant to believe that the general public is unaware of the existence of provocateurs like Norman Mailer, who went a hell of a lot further than Shaw does in attracting notoriety. Shaw’s incredibly tame uses of profanity and devil may care attitude are supposed to make him unique but he doesn’t seem radical enough to cause a stir. The writers also seem to misunderstand the fickle nature of social media celebrity. In today’s day and age, everybody gets their fifteen minutes of fame and anybody with a quirky catchphrase can spawn a meme. Even if Shaw were to become internet famous, he would only be popular for one or two weeks before slipping back into obscurity. Anybody who regularly uses a social media application might end up feeling like this film was made by people who only just started using Facebook.
Best Sellers wants to be about an old dog proving that he can still learn new tricks, but the film itself feels like it is stuck in the past. There is no power behind its message because the film is unable to follow the rules that it sets for itself. As a period piece, it might have achieved a greater sense of verisimilitude. Satirising the literary world of the 1930s might have provided the screenwriters with more juicy material and they wouldn’t have had to contend with the dangerous implications of social media. This was clearly crafted to appeal to an older audience and it might have functioned more successfully if it placed more of an emphasis on the inner workings of Shaw’s mind. If he were a more relatable character, the film would probably engage audience members who are looking for a nice way to spend a Tuesday evening with their grandchildren.
It is a shame that the film doesn’t bother to pursue some of its more complicated plot threads. Stanbridge is built up as a woman who is still working through her childhood trauma and Plaza is able to suggest that she is an impulsive, painfully sincere woman. We get to see flashes of her ordinary life on the peripheries of the narrative and you find yourself wanting to see more of her negotiations with her douchey ex-boyfriend. When she is confined to playing a hardworking termagant, Plaza loses some of the unpredictability that makes her so compulsively watchable in other roles. Like everybody else involved in this production, Plaza just seems to be going through the motions here.
The paint by numbers approach doesn’t yield many dividends and it is difficult to imagine Best Sellers standing out in a market that has already been saturated with productions that were made so that Caine could purchase a new beach house. One can only hope that he will go back to selecting quality roles and delivering committed performances.
Best Sellers will be released digitally in the UK on 18 October, 2021.