Michael Caine’s ‘Best Sellers’ Has Something to Say About the Death of Literacy, If You Can Manage to Stay Awake

'Best Sellers' is about how celebrities are born instantly on social media, but if there's a central message we should take home and think about, it has eluded us.

Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza in the film Best Sellers
(L-R) Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza in Best Sellers Screen Media Films

Michael Caine’s film appearances are now as rare as a cool afternoon in the Mojave. But at age 88, with 130 movies under his belt, he works when it amuses him. Having already turned droopy eyes and a Cockney accent into trademarks, he’s earned the right to pick and choose, even if he sometimes comes off as less exclusive than he used to be. More camembert than cabernet, if you know what I mean.

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(2/4 stars)
Directed by: Lina Roessler
Written by: Anthony Grieco
Starring: Michael Caine, Aubrey Plaza
Running time: 1h 40m

And you will, if you stay awake through a mediocre item called Best Sellers. A bookworm named Lucy Stanbridge (Aubrey Plaza) has inherited from her father a once-promising New York publishing house that has since fallen on hard times. Determined to save her Dad’s imprint and protect his legacy, she searches for an author capable of handing her a new best seller. The young ones don’t meet her standards, so she settles for an old timer named Harris Shaw (Michael Caine). Her father discovered him when he was just starting out and they made each other famous. But when she tracks down the old coot, she is horrified to see what he’s become: a drunken has-been, more famous for his eccentric behavior than anything he’s written. In fact, he hasn’t published anything for 40 years. Undeterred, the young editor traces him to his remote house in Westchester. Yes, he’s finished a new book, modern and obscene and ready for a new crop of readers, called “The Future is X-Rated”. They hate each other on sight, but as Lucy devotes her career to resuscitating Shaw’s career, the movie turns into a literary struggle between art and arithmetic.

Forced to go on a publicity tour, his demands are more than a compromise: endless supplies of Johnnie Walker Black Label, White Wolf cigars, and salted peanuts. Also, he won’t do interviews and doesn’t rise before noon. He insults everyone, assaults the book critic for The New York Times, and urinates in front of the press corps, but the young and highly indiscriminate television audience make him an outspoken public hero—all of which gives Michael Caine the opportunity to play the kind of cranky, pessimistic and thoroughly obnoxious crackpot he does better than anyone since Clifton Webb died in 1966.

The problem is that although the new generation applauds his antics, nobody buys the book. The movie begins to falter when Lucy hits on a gimmick to turn Shaw’s in-person public readings over to the public itself and the book begins to sell. Worse, after spending so much time together in motel rooms, Shaw and Lucy get to know and like each other. By the time she finally reaches out and hugs him, the movie congeals into something cloying. I threw in the towel when she takes him for an embarrassing unplanned visit to her catatonic father in an assisted living home and the movie gets annoying. The title refers to a big posthumous act of Shaw’s generosity that will insure the future success of Stanbridge Publishing forever. But why spoil a movie so devoid of freshness by divulging its only surprise?

Directed with a dull edge by Lina Roessler, at the expense of otherwise talented players, including Scott Speedman. The handsome and versatile Canadian actor is totally wasted as a man who wants to buy Lucy’s publishing house and run her out of business. Best Sellers has something interesting to say about the death of literacy in today’s publishing world, about how nobody reads anything anymore, and about how instant celebrities are born on social media, but if there’s a central message we should take home and think about, it eludes me.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

Michael Caine’s ‘Best Sellers’ Has Something to Say About the Death of Literacy, If You Can Manage to Stay Awake