Film review: Best Sellers transcends formula and hits the mark

Warning: Trailer is NSFW (language):

A publishing house teeters on the edge of insolvency as the daughter of its founder tries to uphold her father’s legacy. In desperation, she reaches out to the reclusive author whose legendary book put the publisher on the map and solidified her father’s reputation as a master editor — a reputation to which she aspires to equal. The author has no intention of cooperating, however. Can she get him to sell his book — and will she salvage a legacy or destroy it?

Best Sellers offers us a formula dramedy with some genuine laughs, genuine pathos, and perhaps a few pressing questions about our current obsessions with viral flash over intellectual substance. In formula, it broadly parallels the Patrick Stewart-Katie Holmes drama Coda, in dealing with artistic obstacles and attempts to rescue the artists from themselves. Coda deals with more subtlety and nuance than the sometimes overbroad Best Sellers, necessarily so for the comedic elements in the latter, but both films are worthy efforts in pursuit of some similar ends.

This film works largely because of the performances from the principals in the cast. Michael Caine announced his retirement shortly after wrapping this up, although he appears to have other projects underway at the moment. If this is indeed his swan song, Caine chose a particularly apt role for it. His Harris Shaw is a bitter, alcoholic echo of J.D. Salinger (also a bit of a formulaic film trope), who became a recluse after the death of his wife. He hasn’t stopped writing, as we see right off the bat, but he refuses to publish, nearly preferring to set fire to his manuscript rather than hand it over to Lucy Stanbridge, the “silver spoon” of his first editor and publisher.

Aubrey Plaza does a fine job as Lucy, delivering both comedy and drama. Plaza may be best known for her deadpan comedy delivery, of which she makes fine use in this film, but I found her surprisingly adept in carrying the dramatic moments as well. Both Caine and Plaza have reveals that complicate their relationship and elevate Best Sellers above the promised antagonistic-buddy-road-trip film that the trailer suggests. Those elements are in the film too, but they’re never the focus. In fact, while both actors have plenty of good moments, it’s Plaza and her forced reconciliation between fiction and truth of her situation that makes the biggest impact in the film.

At the same time, we get at least an opportunity to muse on our current cultural moment. Harris at first literally says nothing publicly but “bulls***e” over and over again (part of his rebellion against Lucy), and gains viral celebrity for that rather than the substance of what he otherwise might have to say. Does anyone actually value literary substance any longer over social-media pwnings? How complicit are the intellectual institutions in that erosion? Best Sellers raises those questions, even if it doesn’t necessarily explore all of them in depth.

In the end, Best Sellers keeps to the formula, but perhaps not quite in the way one would predict. Formulas, after all, endure based on success, and that success depends on well-executed innovations to distinguish them. Best Sellers has enough of the latter to succeed, both structurally within the story and in its performances. It’s not the greatest film you’ll ever see and likely not even in anyone’s top ten list for 2021. It is still entertaining, thoughtful, and a worthwhile investment in entertainment.

Using the Hot Air scale for films already on home theater platforms, Best Sellers gets a 3:

  • 4 – Buy the film/subscribe to the service
  • 3 – Worth a rental price or pay-per-view
  • 2 – Wait for it to come on a TV channel you already get
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

It appears that Best Sellers does not have an MPAA rating; it has none listed at IMDB that I can see. It would probably get a PG-13 for lots of salty language, as well as smoking (Caine and Plaza both smoke cigars at different points), but there isn’t any nudity and only a brief scene of sexuality that gets interrupted well before anything explicit takes place. It’s not going to appeal to teens, however, and the subject matter and the themes aren’t appropriate for audiences younger than that.

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