You can easily see why Michael Caine wanted to play alcoholic, cantankerous novelist Harris Shaw in Lina Roessler’s comedy. Constantly exclaiming “Bullshite!” and prone to such antisocial behavior as peeing on his own book during a literary reading, Shaw provides the octogenarian actor with the sort of elderly show-offy lead role that’s miles away from his recent dignified supporting turns in Christopher Nolan movies. The character isn’t remotely believable for a second, but in Caine’s capable hands he’s vastly amusing to watch.
The same could be said of Aubrey Plaza as Lucy, the young book publisher forced to go on a road trip with the pugnacious Shaw to save her company. The talented actress tamps down her usual edginess to essentially play straight man to her distinguished co-star, and perhaps the most impressive aspect of her performance is that she seems convincingly annoyed even though you know that she’s thrilled to be sharing the screen with the two-time Oscar winner.
The Bottom Line
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.
As the story begins, Lucy’s company, which she has inherited from her father, is in dire financial straits as a result as having published too many terrible YA novels (as if even terrible YA novels don’t sell like hotcakes, let alone earning gazillions from film and streaming adaptations). Her only hope lies in the form of the legendary Shaw, whose last book, written nearly a half-century ago, became a literary sensation. Lucy discovers that Shaw’s contract dictates that he owes the company another book, and accompanied by her loyal assistant (Ellen Wong), she visits the reclusive novelist to order him to make good.
Needless to say, their meeting doesn’t go well. Shaw — the sort of recluse who answers the phone by shouting “He’s dead, bugger off!” — pulls a shotgun on them. But, as we already know from having watched him burn a foreclosure notice, he’s also tapped for funds, so he agrees to let them publish his long-gestating manuscript, “The Future is X-Rated.” (The title does seem like something an out-of-touch, elderly writer would come up with.)
Unfortunately for him, his contract also states that he must submit his book for editing, and he doesn’t take kindly to the idea. “I’ll be damned if let the incompetent hand of nepotism molest my words, Silver Spoon,” he tells her, in an example of the sort of florid dialogue that the film imagines a brilliant writer would utter.
The solution is obvious, at least for anyone taking basic screenwriting courses: road trip! Lucy agrees to publish the manuscript unchanged if Shaw will go with her on a book tour on which he’ll read excerpts from his new magnum opus. Cue the ensuing predictable conflict, as the rascally novelist endlessly exasperates his handler by perpetuating such stunts as reading from Penthouse letters, physically assaulting a pompous New York Times book critic (an amusing cameo by Cary Elwes, doing a Truman Capote impression), and repeatedly chanting his favorite word, “bullshite,” which of course goes viral and becomes a meme.
The film’s mild attempts at satirizing internet culture and book publishing occasionally land, as when Lucy discovers that Shaw’s new young fans are more interested in T-shirts emblazoned with his face and trademark catchphrase than actually reading his book. But the humor becomes overtaken by the contrived plot mechanics, which eventually include several melodramatic revelations and an ending practically scientifically engineered to get tears flowing.
That Best Sellers works to the extent that it does is a testament to Caine’s ultra-professionalism — he truly is a treasure who can make any film worth watching — and Plaza’s canny underplaying. They work together so well, you wish they were in a better movie.