I don’t know very much about the book publishing world. I cannot attempt to tell you, in any sort of detail (or even broadly), how a book goes from manuscript form to sitting on the shelf at a bookstore and then how that book is marketed. I do, however, suspect that the process as depicted in the new film “Best Sellers” is inaccurate. Although the Lina Roessler directed film is largely down to earth, the exact nature of how anyone might go about making a book a best seller feels… off. Of course, that is partially the point of the movie and, even if it were not, it doesn’t matter. “Best Sellers” works not because it’s a look at the world of publishing (it isn’t), but because of the relationship at its center, the one between the writer, Harris Shaw (Michael Caine), and his editor/publisher, Lucy Stanbridge (Aubrey Plaza). The whole thing is somewhat plagued by its insistence on characters having deep, dark, secrets, but when it just sticks to the relationship between Harris and Lucy, it sings.
At the start of the film, Lucy is the semi-new owner of a small publishing house, having taken over the business from her father. She has released a string of failures and the place is on the verge of collapse. Looking for any sort of way out of the problem, besides selling to the smarmy Jack (Scott Speedman), she and her assistant, Rachel (Ellen Wong), discover that they are owed a book that her father paid an advance for years earlier. Complicating matters, the writer is a recluse whom no one has heard from in years. In fact, no one is even sure if he’s still alive. But, desperate, Lucy and Rachel track down this man, Harris Shaw, and convince him give them the book he recently finished.
This is not the movie. This is the setup. The real movie is during the post-release marketing of the book as Lucy and Harris embark on a tour to promote the thing. The real movie is about their growing friendship and respect for one another.
“Best Sellers,” with its quirky and caustic lead characters, remains charming because both Caine and Plaza are wonderful. The former offers up a terribly curmudgeonly man on the verge of drinking himself into the grave. Harris talks to his deceased wife when he thinks no one is listening and wants nothing to do with the world. He is plagued by self-doubt and self-loathing. Plaza provides a snarky but clearly trepidatious publisher. Lucy is worried about her father’s legacy and destroying what she has worked years to obtain. She has sunk all her energy for decades getting to the point where she is now (she did not simply inherit the company, but earned a place there) and not only is she not respected in the industry, she has failed to put out a successful book.
Watching these two actors circle one another with their characters at first foes and then, grudgingly, friends is a pleasure. Roessler’s direction of Anthony Greico’s script helps imbue the two with a sort of three dimensionality that overcomes any questions about whether any book tour would ever be conducted in remotely the fashion in which this one takes place. It is all, actually, rather joyous to watch even as the two are suffering. Plaza and Caine are just that good.
The movie is let down slightly by its relentless need to uncover past secrets. We all know that both Harris and Lucy are going to have to reveal more about themselves than they want to, that they are both hiding things the other should know and which the audience, undeniably, will learn before the credits roll. These reveals are slow and labored and none too intriguing. The more drawn out and darker these reveals are, the less they work and the less Plaza and Caine can do to move things along. Whether it is better or worse that the film doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring the implications of some of its reveals is unclear (worse for the story, maybe, but better for the audience?).
There is some sense that, from time to time, the film coasts a little after a great start. But, by the time “Best Sellers” ends, the audience will be back on board (if they ever got off the train in the first place).
Perhaps the idea that there are only a specific number of stories in the world is right. Perhaps it is true that “Best Sellers” represents a variation on a theme we have all seen before. That is okay. The characters it presents at its center are still interesting and the portrayals are wonderful. If it is a variation on a theme, it is an above average, if imperfect, one. Overlong and overly laborious and secretive at times, it is movie that still makes one think and smile and hope for the love and friendship we see build within its narrative.
photo credit: ScreenMedia
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