STREAMING REVIEWS: Literary ambitions

Published September 28, 2021, 8:32 AM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

Here are two films that dwell on the lives of authors, the publishing business, and how they can consume our own thoughts and actions.

Best Sellers (Video on Demand) – Imagine if you will a reclusive, cantankerous author who hasn’t published a book in decades. In the past, he was lionized and was the pride and joy of a small, but prestigious publishing house, ‘edited’ by the founder of the firm himself. Set in today’s world, this film carries the premise of what would happen if the sole daughter had taken over the business, and now had to save her father’s legacy by reconnecting to this writer and publishing his new work as a means to save the firm from a corporate takeover. Aubrey Plaza plays the daughter, and none other than Michael Caine plays the writer. For those with more than a passing interest in the world of books, of publishing, and of authors, this is the film with all the right elements.

To be fair, it starts off on the right foot, with Caine obviously having fun in once again playing a lead role, and portraying a curmudgeon. Plaza is at her restrained best, playing straight woman to this Caine character – the author from Hell. To keep the drama unfolding, a lot of things are glossed over and made to seem like they happen overnight, and I can forgive the film for that. What is harder to understand, though, is the sudden shift in tonality that comes out of nowhere, somewhere along 3/4ths of the film’s running time. I know it’s for creating a bittersweet feel-good ending, but the change leaves you wondering if you’re still watching the same film. And you kind of wonder what would have happened if Plaza had a looser leash with which to essay her portrayal. Ultimately rewarding, but a minor film. 

My Salinger Year (Video on Demand) – Based on the non-fiction book written by Joanna Rakoff on her own experiences in the publishing world, it’s evident that this film is trying to be the book world’s equivalent of The Devil Wears Prada. And to be honest, being such a glutton for Fiction, I was all for that premise; imagining the likes of modern day Maxwell Perkins. But in fact, this is all about Rakoff (played by Margaret Qualley), getting sage advice from the reclusive JD Salinger, while she was working for literary agent Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) in the early 1990’s. Of course, Rakoff is an aspiring writer herself, so enjoying what she calls her Salinger Year is something quite magical for a young, unpublished author. 

There’s a studied, almost demure approach to the filmmaking and pacing of the film. There’s nothing bad you can throw at the film, but you often wish it would catch fire, or be more engaged with the subject. The Joanna character played by Qualley is always luminous, and she’s got the acting chops, as one of the second generation film stars I’ve encountered – Qualley is the daughter of Andie MacDowell. There’s the gimmick of making the letter-writers to Salinger come to life in montages that ache to be more interesting than they are. What is nicely handled is the personal story of Joanna finding herself and deciding in what direction her life will go. It’s light, frothy entertainment and can be a favorite for young girls – you’ll just wish there was more grit to the whole exercise.