Harris Shaw is a curmudgeon par excellence. When the phone in his office rings, he’s coaxing words out of an antiquated typewriter, smoking a cigar and coughing. Reluctantly answering the call, Shaw fumes, “He’s dead, bugger off.”
Shaw, a novelist and a widower whose sole companion is a cat, is a hermit and may as well be six feet under. His last novel was published 40 or 50 years ago, and he seems to have been forgotten by the literary world.
But things are about to change.
In Lina Roessler’s Canadian film, Best Sellers, which opens on September 17 on VOD platforms, Shaw (Michael Caine) is on the cusp of resurrecting himself. He owes his comeback to Lucy Stanbridge (Aubrey Plaza), the restless chief executive officer of the publishing house that brought out his first novel, Atomic Autumn, a smashing success.
Since taking over the company from her ailing father, Joseph, Lucy has struggled for relevance and solvency. Maybe Shaw can revive the brand. As per his contract, he’s required to produce a new novel. “That’s what we need. It could save the house,” she tells her assistant, Rachel.
Lucy shows up unannounced at Shaw’s house and makes her pitch. He’s in no mood to cooperate, and menacingly points a rifle at her.
In fact, he’s written another novel, but is tempted to consign it to the flames. Instead, he burns an unpleasant letter reminding him of a pressing financial obligation. Caine, looking frail and vulnerable, is pitch-perfect as Shaw. He’s the template of a grumpy old man who despises change.
Due to circumstances beyond his control, he turns up unexpectedly at Lucy’s office with a manuscript in hand, The Future Is X-Rated. Spitting out his words, he describes it, in Shakespearean terms, as “your pound of flesh.”
A skeptic conversing with Lucy shortly afterwards dismisses Shaw as a relic. “He has a cult following at best,” he claims.
Shaw drives a hard bargain when Lucy asks him to promote the novel on a book tour. He agrees to hit the road only after certain conditions are met. She must provide him with a copious supply of liquor, cigars and peanuts, promise not to wake him up before noon, take care of his ailing cat, and guarantee he will not be required to submit to media interviews.
Lucy, played bracingly by Plaza, honors her commitments, but Shaw proves to be rude, rowdy and snarky. In short order, he assaults a prominent book reviewer, stubbornly refuses to read excerpts from his book, and castigates everything as “bullshite.” For good measure, he mocks Lucy’s competence, calling her “silver spoon.”
Shaw’s ingratitude is reflected in poor book sales, which, as Rachel pointedly observers, have yet to reach a “critical mass.”
Eventually, Shaw relents and begins to plug his novel, with surprising results. In formulaic fashion, Lucy grows somewhat fond of Shaw and makes a noble sacrifice for him. Shaw reciprocates as best he can.
Best Sellers, filmed in New York City and Montreal, is by turns entertaining and plodding, but even Caine’s superior performance cannot save it from the ranks of a run-of-the-mill movie.