The Last Word
Mark Pellington, director
Stuart Ross Fink, script
Starring: Shirley MacLaine (Harriet), Amanda Seyfried (Anne), AnnJewel Lee (Brenda), Thomas Sadoski (Robin Sands), Philip Baker Hall (Edward), Anne Heche (Elizabeth)
It must have seemed good as an elevator pitch. Have Shirley MacLaine play a domineering retired career woman, who decides to burnish her reputation before death and an inevitable obituary can offer a stinging last judgment on her.
Tough as nails and still quite wealthy, MacLaine’s Harriet Lauler forces the local newspaper, which is short of funds, to assign their obit writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried) to become her Boswell. The two clash, when Anne, after a couple of days of not very funny interviews with people who knew Ms. Lauler in her pomp, reveals to Harriet that she’s despised.
Somehow Harriet and Anne bond and come up with a plan to make her future obit look good. All too quickly, Harriet meets and starts to mentor the feisty f-bombing 9-year-old African-American Brenda, turns into a match-maker and writing advisor for Anne and becomes—amazingly—the early morning DJ for a local indie rock station that still spins discs on air.
In standard Hollywood style, the audience is supposed to laugh along with Harriet’s over-the-top controlling persona, embrace her cynical attempt to burnish her reputation, and then turn sentimental when she actually does begin to love Brenda and Anne. The three of them skinny dip in a moonlit lake and dance with abandon together at Harriet’s house. Dancing is a far better way to go out than earlier in the film when a lonely Harriet combined too many pills with wine, ending up in the ER of a local hospital.
The Last Word is as phony as a three-dollar bill. But it does give us one more chance to see Shirley MacLaine in a leading role—and she is still a riveting performer. One could only wish that the film had proven to be more worthy of her talents.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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