When an actor with a long and distinguished career decides to walk away from the cameras for the last time, the hope is that their final performance will be one to cherish. Which means that Michael Caine’s reported announcement that Best Sellers is likely to be his last film role puts an unexpectedly bright spotlight on this unassuming comedy. And the actor, whose performances range from likely lads and gangsters to Scrooge and Batman’s butler, takes his final bow by playing a grumpy old man.
More specifically, a grumpy, elderly writer, one Harris Shaw, a reclusive whose last novel hit the printing presses some forty years ago. Everybody, including his publisher Lucy (Aubrey Plaza), thinks he’s dead and she only finds out that he’s still very much around when she desperately needs a bestseller to prevent her selling the company. He presents her with a new manuscript, she decides to publish, talks him into a promotional tour and starts to regret it when he turns up drunk and footage of his behaviour goes viral. But when he becomes a social media hit, sales of the book take off and the two learn to understand each other a whole lot better. Until she discovers he’s been holding back a secret …..
It’s not the first time that we’ve seen Caine as a writer with a taste for the bottle either. And Shaw comes across as an older – and grouchier – version of his BAFTA winning Frank in Educating Rita (1983). The similarities follow through to the odd-couple set up between him and Plaza’s Lucy: like Julie Walters’ Rita, she’s energetic and frustrated by his attitude, but gets past his crusty exterior and outrageous behaviour – including his self-styled “bullshite” catchphrase – to find a different person underneath. The surprise is that, despite the script not always matching the talents of the two actors, they work gratifyingly well together, so that sense of familiarity has a whiff of comfort blanket about it, rather than being an irritant.
At times Anthony Grieco’s script seems to be edging towards something more satirical, but it never gets there, preferring to stay on safer, warm hearted ground. Which means the sporadic laughs are rarely out loud and sometimes closer to wince making, but debut director Lina Roessler has a gentle, even delicate, touch that keeps things afloat and gives the father/daughter dynamic between Caine and Plaza that all-essential credibility. True, it slips into obvious sentiment at times, but not enough to make the overall effect mawkish.
The film also echoes an Oscar also-ran of a few years back, but to mention its name would give away a key plot point. Suffice to say, though, you’ll probably guess as the story progresses: it’s just a question of how quickly. It’s undemanding fare, nicely served but which doesn’t wholly deserve the talents of its two lead actors. As a film, Best Sellers doesn’t so much feel like a missed opportunity but one that simply plays it by the book. As a swan song for Caine, it’s perhaps not all we could have hoped for, but its echoes of previous, better roles are a timely reminder that re-watches are in order. Cue the Caine retrospectives. There’s plenty to choose from.
Drama, Comedy | Cert:15 | Universal | Digital, 18 October 2021 | Dir. Lina Roessler | Michael Caine, Aubrey Plaza, Ellen Wong, Carey Elwes, Scott Speedman.