Best Sellers Review: Michael Caine Steals The Scenes In A By-The-Book Indie Dramedy

One of the first rules of writing is: never start with a cliché. But I'm going to do it anyway, because "Best Sellers," the feature directorial debut of Canadian filmmaker Lina Roessler, is one of those many quirky indie dramedies that you can judge by its cover. Predictable and slightly rote, "Best Sellers" is a typical indie heartwarmer where two opposite people meet, clash, and ultimately teach each other how to be better people over an alt-rock soundtrack curated by Pitchfork. But unoriginality isn't a sin, and "Best Sellers" isn't without its charms — namely, Roessler's visually stimulating direction (hurrah, a comedy that isn't just point-and-shoot!) and Michael Caine's spiky, endlessly entertaining performance as a cantankerous author who is brought out of retirement to embark on a sad book tour organized by the daughter (an always-charismatic Aubrey Plaza) of his famous collaborator.

Harris Shaw (Caine) is a literary legend. He's also a recluse who hasn't been seen in nearly 50 years, not since he published his one and only novel, a Pulitzer Prize winner that basically launched the publishing house of the man who edited it, Joseph Stanbridge. Now, Joseph's daughter Lucy (Plaza) is in charge of the publishing house, and it's about to go under. But with the help of her lone employee (an incredibly fun Ellen Wong), Lucy digs up an old contract for Harris Shaw that reveals that he owes them a book — and a book tour to help sell it. After initially kicking her out with a rifle to her face, Harris reluctantly agrees, on the condition that no one edit his manuscript when it goes to publication.

Roessler, who makes the leap from acting to directing with "Best Sellers," attacks first-time screenwriter Anthony Grieco's script with zeal, delighting in making the rather generic story into one that's at least visually interesting. And it is, Roessler's camera moving to an almost manic degree while playing with bird's eye view angles and other stylistic flairs. Coupled with caustic dialogue and a go-for-broke performance from Caine, "Best Sellers" is off to a great start with a fizzy first half that mostly sees Caine raging against Plaza and various passerby. "He's not homophobic, he hates everyone," Plaza's Lucy apologetically explains to various publicists who clutch their pearls at Harris Shaw's antics. It's the kind of "get off my lawn" grizzled performance that Caine, so often playing the classy gentleman lately, obviously relishes. Honestly, if there were just a movie of an extremely ticked-off Caine throwing bottles of whisky out windows and cussing nonstop, I would watch it.

Which "Best Sellers" acknowledges, to a degree. The book tour is a disaster from the beginning, because Harris Shaw refuses to actually read from his new book, instead just chanting "bullsh*te" while getting up to (literally) piss on the pages. But this stunt becomes an unexpected viral sensation, proving that kids these days would also rather watch an outrageous Caine than read a book. So Lucy tries to take advantage of that, selling merch instead of books and leaning into the circus act — but as anyone who has watched a movie will tell you, that kind of disingenuity will only get you so far.

Judging a Book By Its Cover

As enjoyable as it is watching Caine curse, and bluster, and rage through the various dingy bars that accept their book tour, a gimmick can only last so long. And that's the case too for "Best Sellers," which loses steam as soon as it tries to figure out: what next? How do we bring this acerbic road trip comedy back around to the heartwarmer that it wants to be? In trying to mine the emotions out of Caine and Plaza's sparkling odd-couple dynamic, "Best Sellers" comes to a screeching halt. This is where things take a turn for the predictable: Harris thinks himself a fraud, Lucy is trying to prove that she isn't. A debilitating illness accelerates the glimpses of deeper character moments between them, and "Best Sellers" drops its near-farcical elements of its first half (primarily represented by Cary Elwes' hilariously snobbish book critic) for a more straightforward sentimentality.

It's fine, if a little stale. Caine and Plaza are great, with Plaza in particular honing her unhinged energy into something of a manic Type-A businesswoman. When they clash, sparks fly. When they have hearts-to-heart, they sell it, even if the movie isn't sure what they're selling. Authenticity is a sham? Father figures are the ones you make? Read a book?

In the end "Best Sellers" leaves you with the somewhat deflated feeling of "that was nice," like a good beach read rather than a life-changing tome. But though you can see its twists coming from a mile away, Caine and Plaza's oddball dynamic and Roessler's visually stimulating direction makes "Best Sellers" a movie that's diverting enough to cozy up with.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10