There’s a subgenre of movies where an aging movie star takes on a role where they face down their own mortality in the hopes of that one last moment in the limelight and maybe a little bit of awards consideration. Typically the star is playing a cantankerous old person that sheds their layers of gruff exterior and impart their wisdom and a number of life lessons on a young person whom they’ve built a connection with. Most recently we’ve seen Jerry Lewis do this in last year’s Max Rose. Now it’s Shirley MacLaine in director Mark Pellington’s The Last Word, which pretty much follows the standard for these types of movies with little in the way of surprises. The Last Word has moments of modest humor that work and MacLaine gives a nice little performance but the movie is too familiar to be anything more than a slightly passable swan song for its star.
Harriet Lauler (MacLaine) lives a life of constant control and micromanagement. If she’s unhappy with the work of her gardener, she’ll do the gardening work herself. If her housekeeper isn’t cutting her vegetables just right, she’ll cut them the way she like them. If her hairdresser isn’t styling to her satisfaction, she’ll take a mirror and scissors and make it just right. While she’s able to maintain control, there’s a loneliness to that kind of life. When Harriet begins to realize the encroaching sense of her own mortality, she travels to the local newspaper and uses he great means to get the paper’s obituary writer Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried) to craft a loving obituary that Harriet can approve before its publication and her death. This, however, proves to be quite a challenge for Anne as she’s incapable of finding too many people to provide kind words about Harriet. Eventually, Harriet’s controlling ways come forward and she presents Anne with four key principles to a good obituary – respect of her co-workers, charitable works, the love of her family, and a wild card that provides the piece with a bit of flair. It’s not long before the two form a bond and Harriet imposes a variety of lessons on the meek Anne because that’s just how these movies work and The Last Word is no different.
The chief appeal of The Last Word is watching Shirley MacLaine get that last moment in the spotlight, and she delivers a pretty solid performance. However, MacLaine gave a stronger performance of a similar type of character in Richard Linklater’s Bernie, a movie that wasn’t burdened with the overt sentimentality on display here. This movie is at its breezy best when it features montages of Seyfried’s Anne seeking kind words about Harriet, finding humor in the wide-held perception of MacLaine’s character who is so shrewd even a priest can’t speak highly of her. There’s also plenty of comedy to be found in Harriet’s attempts to mentor a young black girl, Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), which starts out as a piece of comedic cynicism before giving way completely towards the most obvious of sentimentality. It often seems as if The Last Word is pulling itself back, never allowing its sweet to blend with its more acerbic elements.
All the story beats of the screenplay by Stuart Ross Fink become more and more apparent as the movie progresses. You just know that Harriet is going to visit the estranged members of her family (her ex-husband played by Phillip Baker Hall and daughter played by Anne Heche) and you know that Harriet and Anne’s friendship will be placed under strain by some form of controlling behavior. The only kind of off-the-wall story development is when Harriet maneuvers her way into a slot as a DJ at an independent radio station run by Robin Sands (Thomas Sadoski), whom soon starts a relationship with Anne. Harriet uses her love of the Kinks as a means to win Robin’s trust and she becomes this wise old sage of music, but it doesn’t feel real as much as a flight of fancy – “Hey, old people are hip!” Like most everything else in The Last Word, the conclusion to the film is pretty much preordained and it lacks an emotional impact because you know it’s coming from the film’s opening frames. At least they did have the decency to use “Waterloo Sunset” by the Kinks so I could at least hear one of my favorite songs as I left the theater.
Shirley MacLaine is Hollywood royalty and deserves the right to say goodbye to the movie-going public however she sees fit. It’s just a shame that the script and pacing of The Last Word never matches the intent behind the project. Had few more jokes landed, had there been a moment that genuinely surprised, had it dared to just defy convention just a little bit, The Last Word could’ve been that fitting farewell it is intended to be. Instead, The Last Word is fairly generic movie where practically everything is preordained by the subgenre’s convention.