The Last Word
Not wanting to miss out on the late-career fun, Shirley MacLaine joins Blythe Danner (I’ll See You in My Dreams), Lily Tomlin (Grandma), Susan Sarandon (The Meddler) and Sally Field (Hello, My Name is Doris) in the ranks of actresses who’ve played retired women getting their groove back with her own headlining project, The Last Word.
Officially sworn into their club, MacLaine outdoes all but Danner with her depiction of Harriet Lauler, a lonely former advertising mogul who, following an unsuccessful suicide attempt and a chance encounter with the local newspaper’s obituary page, suddenly becomes concerned about how people will remember her.
Keenly aware of Harriet’s deep pockets and her desire to keep the paper afloat, editor Ronald Odom (Tom Everett Scott) tasks obituary writer Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried) with composing their benefactor’s condensed life story while she’s still alive.
Her prickly presence and filter-free mouth establishing her as an appealing character, albeit one perhaps best experienced at a distance, Harriet and her reputation are rounded out in a riotous montage as Anne tries and fails to wring a nice comment out of Harriet’s known associates, including her ex-husband Edward (Philip Baker Hall), former gynecologist and one deeply rattled priest.
Plan B for some positive content arrives in the form of mentoring “at risk” black youth Brenda (Ann'Jewel Lee), whose profanity-laden tirade on the Dewey Decimal System’s shortcomings Harriet conveniently witnesses, convincing her that Brenda is the protégée for her.
With Anne tagging along in search of article fodder, it’s a pleasure to watch the three play off one another and attempt to decipher each’s generational eccentricities, and their rapport works far better than your average plucky kid/disaffected Millennial/sassy grandma team.
The chemistry between the three women naturally brings out the best in Harriet, as well as gradually inspiring Anne to confront abandonment issues stemming from her long-absent mother and act on her desire to be an essayist – none of which are exactly surprising developments.
In line with its sub-genre peers, The Last Word isn’t the type of film likely to offer grand revelations and, true to form, debut screenwriter Stuart Ross Fink predictably focuses on tried-and-true life lessons through realistic characters instead of deviating from the norm.
Non-flashy direction from Mark Pellington (Arlington Road) proves a good match for the pleasantly familiar plotting, which receives a boost as Harriet turns her love of pop music into a gig at the local radio station, thereby significantly enriching the soundtrack.
Harriet’s inevitable decades-delayed reunion with her daughter Elizabeth (Anne Heche) – involving a road trip to what could be the same motor lodge from 20th Century Women – and a somewhat contrived and rushed 11th hour complication that limits Harriet’s remaining screen time, however, are less welcome.
But to The Last Word’s credit, every time the action starts to feel a bit shaggy and in need of somewhere to go, something happens to revive its sagging pace, suggesting bigger and better things to come from Mr. Fink.
Grade: B. Rated R. Not currently playing locally.
(Photo: Bleecker Street)