Produced by Mark Pellington, Anne Marie MacKay,
Kirk D’Amico, Aaron Magnani
Written by Stuart Ross Fink
Directed by Mark Pellington
Starring Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried,
Anne Heche, Tom Everett Scott, Thomas Sadoski,
Joel Murray, Adina Porter, Bree Wilson
Shirley MacLaine has carved out a niche as one amusingly disapproving curmudgeon after another and she nails the fussy character of perfectionist Harriet Lauler in The Last Word perfectly.
Sadly, the movie is standard, formulaic stuff that even she can’t fully redeem.
However, she does manages to lift it, now and then, above the tired Scrooge-inspired tropes of “angry misanthrope learns to be kind in record time.”
The premise: Sad and lonely — but very wealthy — Harriet fixates on what the world will say about her when she dies, so she recruits the local paper’s obituary writer Anne (Amanda Seyfried) to write a glowing obituary about her, with Harriet’s stern approval over every word, naturally.
From the get-go, this funny premise hits a big reality check. Anne’s editor (Tom Everett Scott) has already taken her aside and stressed the importance of keeping Harriet, a major investor in the paper, happy at all costs. And the other rapturous obits written by Anne were, as Harriet points out, tactful to the extreme, skipping such legacy blots as syphilis and alcoholism. But instead of writing a fluff piece about Harriet’s actual accomplishments, Anne tells her she’s unable to come up with anything since everyone in Harriet’s life hates her so much. Given that her job and her employer’s future are riding on Anne’s cooperation here, her blunt refusal to Harriet is highly unlikely.
But, Anne’s job is safe, because Harriet admires someone as blunt as she is and instead orders Anne to help her “craft a legacy” with her remaining time. Part of this involves nurturing an “at-risk” child, which leads them to Brenda (AnnJewel Lee), who immediately sees through Harriet’s B.S. just as quickly as Anne did.
The gimmick of trying to be a better person by mentoring a young black girl is ripe for satire, but Brenda’s presence mostly means she’s there to be sassy and roll her eyes when Harriet wants to eat “crab tartines” instead of McDonald’s. All we learn about Brenda is that she thinks books should be arranged alphabetically and that her dad is AWOL, so the film’s use of her is just as shallow as Harriet’s initial motivation.
And Harriet’s renewed passion for rock ’n’ roll that leads her to take a DJ shift at Anne’s favorite indie radio station is likewise a mildly diverting bit of dissonance and not much more. It does introduce some great songs to the soundtrack, but you have to ask, how many 80-something women out there consider The Kinks “the most underrated band in history,” let alone know who they are?
In the course of finding something nice to write about Harriet’s life, Anne’s own life is shaken up. She embraces her unpublished writings, comes to terms with her feelings about her own mother, and hooks up with the DJ she’s admired for years.
Despite the predictability of both characters’ arcs, there are moments when their bonding feels genuine, when we get a glimpse of what the movie could have been. And despite the trio’s road trip that seems designed mostly to squeeze in more soundtrack-worthy songs, scenes of them wading into a lake together do convey a nice sense of sisterhood.
I vastly preferred the similarly themed Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee A Man Called Ove, in which a grumpy and suicidal old man reluctantly learns to embrace life again thanks to the interventions of his new neighbors. There’s an unforced authenticity about that film that exceeds the by-the-numbers antics of The Last Word.
But it’s hard to completely hate a movie that contains a few genuine laughs and urges you to embrace your best self. And that sends some much-needed retroactive love to pioneering, under-appreciated businesswomen like Harriet.
Depending on your level of love for MacLaine, she elevates the film from “bleah” to “not too bad.”
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5
The Last Word opens in theaters in LA and NY on March 3, 2017.