If you were born before or around 1980, a warm feeling of nostalgia might rush over you during the opening few minutes of “Best Sellers,” a comedy-drama about a young book publisher and a cranky old author. For starters, it’s a film that purportedly thinks books are important, which immediately makes it a nostalgia object. But it also recalls a loose genre of films, popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s, about young working women trying to make it in New York. They don’t make these movies much anymore, and, even though “Best Sellers” isn’t very good, it’s nice that someone cared enough to try.
The film finds Lucy (Aubrey Plaza) in the midst of a tense blend of personal and professional crises. The publishing house that her father left her is on the verge of bankruptcy. Her smarmy ex-boyfriend (Scott Speedman) wants to buy it from her, an acquisition too emotionally unsettling for her to allow. She discovers that ‘60s icon Harris Shaw (Michael Caine) still owes her company a book, and, after a meet-cute involving a loaded shotgun, convinces the reclusive author to hand over one of his unpublished novels and embark on a hastily-arranged book tour.
Played by the 88-year-old Caine at his most cantankerous, Harris displays a wild contempt for his own writing and anyone who bothers to read it, turning his book tour stops into spectacles that have little to do with literature but nonetheless make him a social media sensation. At least that’s the idea. These speaking gigs should be a screenwriter’s delight, over-written arias of rage and self-loathing. Instead, they are woefully underwritten. All that really happens is Harris repeats his cheeky pronunciation of a certain obscenity, which inexplicably endears him to the world, and storms off the stage.
It’s a film that often feels written by a bot. The structure is sound, but there is no human spark. The underlying ideas behind “Best Sellers” could lend itself to a poignant story of human connection along with some subtle commentary about changing attitudes towards literature and art. It could have drawn some parallels between the father with whom Lucy had a complicated relationship and the elderly jerkface on which her future relies. But the script by Anthony Grieco seems more like an outline, skimming over its plot points without making actual scenes out of them. It has no real interest in the characters or the world they inhabit. It looks like a movie and sounds like a movie, but there’s just nothing there.
And Plaza is woefully ineffective in the lead role, although she admittedly has little to work with. She’s an actress who can shine in the right scenario; in “Ingrid Goes West” and “Black Bear,” Plaza took real risks in playing mentally unstable characters who act out in shocking ways. “Best Sellers” tries to cage a wild animal, and it’s utterly unconvincing. It’s not so much that she can’t play an average young woman. Building a convincing chemistry with her co-star has never been her forte, and “Best Sellers,” which is essentially a rom-com about a friendship, absolutely relies on her ability to do so. She and Caine each do fine in their close-ups, but you never sense the development of an actual relationship.
So no, this is not “Baby Boom” or “Working Girl,” or any of the other films that once gently portrayed the struggle of young women in a professional world dominated by men. “Best Sellers” was never going to be a hit because it exists in an era in which movies like this rarely even get made, let alone become successes. But a market always exists for nostalgia, and it could have easily found a home in the hearts of people like me, who want to be reminded of a time when vaguely recognizable human beings populated our movies. Instead, “Best Sellers” is headed straight for the bargain basement.
“Best Sellers” opens in theaters and on demand on September 17.