It’s always good news when Michael Caine makes a new film. Who doesn’t love his sardonic, Cockney purr and his distinctive, winning smile? In a career that has spanned more than 70 years, Caine has virtually always been the best thing about any movie he has appeared in.
That’s a pretty big compliment, because Caine, who will turn 90 in March, has been in some great movies, such as the original Alfie, The Man Who Would Be King, Sleuth (the original and the remake), Hannah and Her Sisters, The Dark Knight and so many more.
But the two-time Oscar winner would be the first to admit that, facing financial pressures, he has made more than a few clunkers, such as Jaws: The Revenge and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.
Best Sellers: Good and bad news
There’s good news and bad news about his latest film, Best Sellers, which opens throughout Israel on January 5. The good news is that it’s an attempt to give him a meaty role, one that will allow him to show off his talent for playing an ornery old guy. The bad news is that it doesn’t quite jell, and, in spite of a good cast and a funny premise, it’s predictable at best and often cloying and formulaic.
Best Sellers, which attempts to skewer both the current state of the US publishing industry and the clicks- and celeb-obsessed social media culture, makes a few knowing points about both, but tries to do this in the context of a touching relationship drama, and it ends up rehashing clichés on all fronts.
THE PLOT revolves around Lucy Stanbridge (Aubrey Plaza, the winning young actress from Parks and Recreation and, more recently, The White Lotus, season 2), who has inherited her father’s once vaunted publishing house.
While her dad edited and published literary greats, now the company is mired in debt, as sales of serious literature have tanked. Prodded by her loyal assistant, Rachel (Ellen Wong, who played Jenny on GLOW), she realizes she must take a bold step.
When she figures out that the reclusive novelist Harris Shaw (Caine) owes the publishing house two books, she takes Rachel along and drives to see him.
Harris is meant to be someone who once had the stature of Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer, but who has not published a book in over 50 years. He is living in a house in a New York suburb with his cat and has just completed a novel – written on a manual typewriter and riddled with whisky stains – but has no intention of trying to publish it. Like Lucy, he is in debt big-time, and he has no idea what he’s going to do next.
The hard-drinking Harris, who is as angry and bitter as any grumpy old man whose heart you have seen thaw in a thousand movies, refuses to give her the book at first, even pulling a gun on them (did we really need to see that to know he’s politically incorrect and difficult?).
Lucy is about to sell her company to a predatory former protégé of her father, Jack (Scott Speedman), but at the last minute, Harris walks in and drops the manuscript on her desk.
There is a lot of talk about who is capable of editing this tome, and eventually it is published, under the not very promising title The Future is X-Rated.
Contractually obligated to promote the book, although everything about publicity makes him sick, Harris agrees. Rather improbably, Lucy books him into a series of hipster bars, where he refuses to read from his work, and where the 20-somethings would rather buy T-shirts with what becomes his catchphrase, “Bull-shite,” than purchase a 500-page novel.
For a movie this predictable, there is not much of a need for a spoiler alert, but anyone who wants to see the film should stop reading here. He trends, but the book doesn’t sell, until eventually it does, following some outrageous antics of his that for some reason do inspire today’s readers to reach for their credit cards.
It probably won’t shock you to learn that, as they schlep through wintry roads from bar to bar, they open up to each other. Lucy learns a secret about her father that inspires her to put more faith in herself, and everyone warms to everyone.
In spite of Caine’s charm and Plaza’s pluckiness, nothing in the movie feels genuine, and that’s a shame, because the conceit of having a politically incorrect dinosaur of a writer working with a young publisher could have been funny.
The movie is the feature film debut of director Lina Roessler and the first screenplay by Anthony Grieco, and I wished Grieco had written another couple of drafts to find the story struggling to come out.
Fans of Caine and Plaza might want to wait until this movie is offered on a streaming service, because its often sitcom-style tone might play better on the small screen.