The final words on the The Last Word are: Skip it
Shirley MacLaine has been making movies for almost six decades, so it’s a shame that as she enters her mid-80s and starts the twilight of her career, she’s not offered projects more worthy of her talents. Case in point is this saccharine, hackneyed new effort from director Mark Pellington, who previously brought us the much more entertaining thrillers The Mothman Prophecies and Arlington Road. In a radical departure from those dramas, Pellington, working from a paint-by-numbers screenplay by first time screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink, turns The Last Word into a predictable, cliché-ridden, and inordinately dull piece of wanna-be comedic fluff that is only barely salvaged by the casting of consummate actress MacLaine in the lead role.
As former trailblazing advertising exec Harriet Lawlor, MacLaine here makes Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly look like a warm and cuddly favorite grandma in comparison. Long retired, Harriet spends her days chastising everyone from her gardener to her hairdresser, correcting their perceived mistakes, and offering only withering criticism and dripping condescension. When Harriet decides that she wants to preemptively draft her own obituary to properly portray herself and her accomplishments, she hires Anne (Amanda Seyfried), a young obituary writer from the local paper to take on the task. As Harriet realizes that Anne has received only hostile feedback from the family, friends and associates Harriet has directed Anne to interview (even Harriet’s priest is terrified by her), Harriet decides she needs to change her image and redeem herself before it’s too late.
The fundamental problem with this set up, though, is that if nobody in the film likes Harriet, why should we? As presented by Pellington and Fink, Harriet is so thoroughly repugnant and unlikable that, from the film’s beginning, the audience lacks any incentive to have any sort of rooting interest in what happens to her, or to care what her stupid obituary will say (As Anne tell her editor about Harriet, “She puts the ‘bitch’ in obituary.”).
What the screenplay does, then, naturally and utterly predictably, is to try to convince us that gee, underneath it all, Harriet isn’t really all that bad. And so we get a borderline offensive “white savior” storyline in which Harriet plainly tells Anne that one way to be remembered more admirably is to touch someone’s life, “preferably a minority or a cripple.” The line is played for laughs, and we’re supposed to think it’s delightful and charming when Harriet picks a “hooligan” (her word) from an after-school community program to mentor. And thus Harriet, Anne, and young, hand-picked African-American Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon, holding her own against MacLaine, which is more than can be said of Seyfried) become a picture-perfect trio just made for a series of wholly clichéd cinematic montages, including not one but two dance numbers, a swimming hole scene filled with tinny fake laughter, and, of course, a slow mo, we’re-so-bad-ass sunglasses-wearing strutting walk down the street.
All this feel-good bonding is peppered with cringe-inducing dialog (example: “You don’t make mistakes. Mistakes make you.”), and obvious, convenient plot lines (Anne’s mother left her when she was 9! Harriet is estranged from her own daughter!). This movie is the kind that trains the camera on gauzy curtains billowing in the breeze when a character has a pensive moment, and when a character wistfully spins a globe near the beginning of the picture, you just know someone will be getting on a plane by the film’s end. The script also basically cribs Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There As” as a stand-in for an early poem Anne writes that’s supposed to signify she’s an amazingly perceptive, thoughtful writer. Well, sure. Maybe if her effort wasn’t reminiscent of popular lyrics penned over 40 years ago.
The casting of Seyfried as Anne doesn’t help matters; Seyfried isn’t an especially strong actress, and she’s particularly bland here, which makes buying her as a struggling writer with a rich inner life a bit of a challenge. That a woman with a personality as intense as Harriet’s would be drawn to a friendship with such a blank slate doesn’t seem even in the realm of possibility.
Thomas Sadoski, as a DJ who allows Harriet a morning show spot (don’t ask) and becomes Anne’s love interest, fares much better; he has an ease and naturalness of delivery that Seyfried lacks. His scenes with MacLaine are some of the best in the movie, while his scenes with Seyfried – and Seyfried’s with MacLaine – feel stilted and flat (and Sadoski and Seyfried are actually a couple in real life, which makes their lack of chemistry even more depressing). Sadoski’s Robin also gets off what is easily the best line in the film; when Anne tells him he smells good, he replies dryly, “that’s vinyl and ‘90s apathy.”
If only the rest of the picture could have been filled with such bon mots and not merely a series of platitudes, we might have had something worth seeing here. Unfortunately, though, one laugh-inducing line delivered by a decent comic actor in a film starring an iconic actress is simply not enough to warrant recommending this trite, ultimately forgettable film.
The Last Word opens today at the Landmark Embarcadero and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, and will expand to the Landmark Albany Twin and Aquarius theaters on March 17th.