When handled well, bridging the generations by paring an older actor with a younger actor can sometimes create a cinematic chemical reaction where the result is greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t mean creepy male- fantasy-Woody-Allan kinds of films – I mean films like Harold and Maude (young Bud Cort and old Ruth Gordon - Hal Ashby, 1971) or As Good As it Gets (old Jack Nicholson and young Helen Hunt – James L Brooks, 1998) or Lost in Translation (old Bill Murray and young Scarlett Johansen – Sophia Coppola, 2003); films where it’s not about sex, per se, but about differing perspectives on life and death and genuine ageless human connection.
So, casting two great actors; young Aubrey Plaza (so great on TV’s in Parks and Recreation and on the big screen in 2017’s Ingrid Goes West) up against old Michael Caine (so great in almost everything except 1987’s Jaws: The Revenge) has precedent that should give one cause for excited anticipation. Unfortunately, there are no sparks between the two, so the excitement never really gets ignited. This isn’t really the fault of the actors/ They both turn in quite watchable and engaging performances, it’s just that they seem to be in different movies. Partly this is a problem with a derivative and predictable screenplay from first time screenwriter Anthony Grieco and partly it’s down to Lina Roessler’s direction which allows the two actors to perform their characters in quite different, mismatched rhythms and tones.
The story, itself, certainly has promise. Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza) is the daughter of well-respected publisher Joseph Stanbridge (Luc Morissette) who has left her the firm which, it seems, she’s run into near bankruptcy by putting all their eggs into a young adult fantasy novel that’s tanked. Sensing her desperation, slimy competitor (and Lucy’s ex) Jack Sinclair (Scott Speedman) is about to close the deal on buying the ailing business when Lucy stumbles across an old contract her father made with bestselling author Harris Shaw (Caine). Shaw hasn’t published in fifty years and his contract stipulates that he owes them a book which, of course, has just finished writing. It also stipulates that his work is not to be edited at all on the proviso that he participates in whatever publicity the publishing house has in mind. Shaw, of course, is a curmudgeonly self-centred, whisky-soaked misanthrope and the last person you’d want to be accompanying on a book tour, but Lucy holds him to the contract’s terms and Shaw needs the money so, off they go.
No doubt you can already see where this story is heading (and that’s exactly where it goes) and that would be fine if there was enough frisson between the two to distract us from the familiarity of the path we’re on. But there’s not. It’s like Lucy, Jack and Lucy’s kooky PA, Rachel (Ellen Wong) are all in a remake of You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1998) or its superior predecessor The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940) but then, where does Harris Shaw fit? He doesn’t. He’s in some other movie that, frankly, I’d prefer to see. Caine’s cantankerous take on Shaw is enjoyable enough but it’s chalk to the cheese of Plaza’s daffy, desperate Lucy.
There is some interesting social commentary sitting in the background here as Shaw’s indifference to his audience and general profanity is adopted as some kind of hipster chic on social media (after he brands everything as ‘bullshite’ the word becomes a trending hashtag and even appears on billboards) but any examination of the generational shift between his last novel being lauded for its content and his new novel being the catalyst for more ironic fandom from audiences that respond to the grumpy personality but are neither buying nor reading the book, is superficial at best.
The film gets quite bogged down in the middle and there are some implausibilities such as Shaw’s quite positive reaction to Lucy having gone ahead and edited Shaw’s novel without his knowledge – which seems pointless anyway, given they’re on a book tour with the published book. There are also some twists towards the end which are not all that twisty, and a final coda that really stretches the friendship.
Recently, Michael Caine made some statements which suggested that after Best Sellers he is ‘done with movies’. He followed that up quite quickly with a correction via twitter, saying ‘I haven’t retired’. When great actors reach a certain age (Caine’s 88) you can’t help but hope for one more great performance. For Michael Caine, Best Sellers isn’t it. Fingers crossed he has another crack before, as he says, he’s ‘done with movies’ for good.